Help! My Plants Froze And I Think They’re Dead

How to tell if your plants are dead or just dormant, plus the best care plan for getting them back on track for spring blooms.

Dead Winter Plants

Much of the South saw an extended period of subfreezing temperatures at the beginning of this winter season. If your plants, even the most winter hardy of varieties, were left looking brown, sad, and half (if not completely) dead, you’re not alone. But, before you get out the loppers or, even worse, start pulling out plants willy-nilly thinking they’ve seen their last day in the sun, know there might be hope yet for your gloomy-looking garden. 

“Most garden plants are tolerant of a brief freeze period—as long as the roots are still healthy, you’ll typically see them recover just fine in the spring,” says Lindsay Pangborn, Gardening Expert at Bloomscape. “It takes a consistent period of freezing temperatures for the soil to freeze through, which is the real threat to the longevity of perennials.” Just how one can tell the difference between a plant that has gone dormant and one that is completely done for is the real trick. Here Pangborn and Jim Putnam, founder of HortTube and plant expert for Southern Living Plant Collection share tips for getting your plants through the post-freeze weeks without sacrificing springtime blooms. 

How To Tell If Plants Are Dead or Dormant

The process of determining if your plants are still living will differ based on what type of plant you’re dealing with. For trees and shrubs with bark, Pangborn says there are two ways to go: the snap test or the scratch test.

Snap Test For Trees and Shrubs

To conduct a snap test, find the end of a branch that is about the same diameter as a pencil. With one hand hold the branch and with the other bend it back on itself. A dead branch will snap cleanly and without much effort. If your branch is living, it will split, showing green or white wood.

Scratch Test For Trees and Shrubs

You can also use a knife to carefully scratch the bark on a young stem of the plant. Green means your plant is living, but brown means that part of the plant (if not the whole thing) is not. To see if the entire plant is dead, scratch the stem farther down the plant as the parts closer to the soil might still have life. If that’s the case, Pangborn advises cutting off the dead stems an inch or two above the growth. 

Inspect Perennial Roots

If you’re trying to determine the health of perennials without bark, Pangborn advises checking out the roots. Even if the plant looks dead above ground, it’ll be fine as long as its roots are a healthy white or yellow color. If you’re patient, though, go ahead and wait it out. “The lengthening daytime hours and warming temperatures will naturally wake plants up from a freeze-induced dormancy,” says Pangborn. “Signs of life will first appear in the soil in the center of the plant as tiny shoots.” Once you spot shoots, trim away any remaining dead foliage. 

How To Care for Plants After a Deep Freeze

Once your plants have been through a deep freeze, particularly one of extended length, certain adjustments in their care should be made. “The most important rule is not to prune immediately after a major freeze, even if your evergreen’s leaves have turned a dramatic shade of brown or black,” warns Putnam. “Those dry and damaged leaves are still providing the plant with important protection that it will need for the remainder of winter.” He also points out that you might unknowingly be trimming away any buds that are prepping for their springtime new growth. 

It’s only safe to start pruning once the plant is exhibiting signs of new growth and the possibility of major freezes have been left behind. To ensure you’re giving your plant the proper care, Putnam suggests consulting your local garden center about the specific variety you’re caring for. They will be able to advise the ideal timing and method for removing damaged foliage and branches. 

If your plant was dormant prior to the freeze, you’re already in great shape as it’s less likely that these plants would have sustained visible foliage damage. That being said, keeping a layer of mulch over the roots for the remainder of the winter season and ensuring they receive appropriate watering (once every 3-4 weeks in times of no rain or snow) is best practice. “Mulching is a helpful step in the short-term to help your freeze-damaged plant back on the road to recovery,” says Putnam. “Adding a layer of 3-4 inches of mulch over the roots of shrubs like gardenia and camellias, as well as perennials like hellebores, heucheras, and tiarellas, will protect them from any subsequent rounds of winter weather.” Pangborn also advises adding a thin layer of slow-release fertilizer once temperatures reach at least 50°F during the day to help stimulate new growth. 

How To Tell If Flowering Schedules Will Be Affected

Depending on the timing of your freeze, blooms might be delayed or occur right on time. “Because evergreen plants like boxwoods, arborvitae, and hollies are perennial, the root portion of the plant will likely remain protected in a freeze assuming the plant is hardy in your USDA Zone,” says Putnam. “Even if its evergreen leaves turn brown and fall off due to a sudden cold snap or winter storm, the plant will most likely recover and return as usual in spring if it’s hardy in your area.” An early to mid-winter storm could see all the leaves of your evergreen shrub turn brown or fall off completely, but it will still have a good chance of exploding in blooms come spring, he says. 

If your plant had open blooms at the time of the freeze, we’re sad to say there’s not much hope for their second life. The same isn’t necessarily true of buds that were on the stem at the time of the freeze but just hadn’t opened yet. “If the bud is firm, this is a great indication that it is healthy and will open into a bloom,” says Putnam. On the other hand, if they appear mushy and brown they will not survive to bloom.

Above all else, caring for your freeze-damaged plant requires one very special skill: patience. “Nature has a way of working itself out, and with warming spring temperatures and sunny days, new growth will soon appear and the freeze damage will be a memory of the past,” Pangborn assures.

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