First step – make sure they’re really dead.

The winter freeze can be hard on plants. Grumpy gets lots of mail about formerly verdant evergreens and other plants that now look like they just came from the toaster. Crispy-brown leaves, blackened stems, and fallen foliage do not a happy plant signify.

What should you do? Trim off the dead-looking stuff? Go full commando and chop victims off at the ground? Don't do either. Wait.

Brown hydrangea
Credit: Steve Bender

Just because a plant looks dead doesn't mean it is. A few years ago, every single frond on my sago palm turned brown and died. I assumed the worst, cut off the dead, and moved the pot to my plant cemetery. Much to my amazement, a new set of fronds sprouted from the crown several weeks later. My sago was reborn!

Plants usually come from the garden center with a USDA Zone hardiness rating on the tag. For example, the hardiness rating for a crepe myrtle may be USDA Zones 6-9. Keep in mind, though, that these ratings cover large areas in which temperatures can vary widely from year to year. So the ratings are really guesstimates. They can't account for rogue weather, like 20 degrees below normal for an extended period that can happen when we least expect it.

Ye Olde Scratch Test

Before you prune back any woody plant, do the scratch test. Use your fingernail or a knife to scratch the bark on a twig or a branch. If you find green underneath, that twig or branch is alive (at least for the moment). If you find brown, it's dead (and always will be). Find the uppermost point on a twig or branch where you can find green and cut back to there. New growth should start from these points.

Even if your plant has brown bark all the way to the ground doesn't guarantee it's dead. Roots may still be alive and the frozen plant sprout at ground-level. Crepe myrtles are famous for this. I've seen new shoots grow six feet tall in one season and bloom in late summer.

So put away those loppers and pruning saws for a few more weeks. Patience may save your plants.