Alabama weather is nuts sometimes. From short sleeves to parkas within the same week, we have certainly had our share of the “Alabama weather” that everyone talks about so far this year.

With the cold weather we have experienced in the past few weeks and with more expected, we can anticipate a fair amount of cold damage on plants this year.

When our temperatures drop below the freezing mark for 24-36 hours or more, our plants that are adapted to mild temperatures can take a beating. But don’t fret; while your landscape may show battle scars from a tough winter, chances are that the plants will be just fine.

With plants like tea olive, hydrangea, Southern magnolia, Indian Hawthorn, and many others showing winter damage, our office is getting call after call about cold damage. The best answer at this point is to wait it out.

While many plants are showing scorched and browning leaves, bare stems, vertical cracking and desiccating branches, it is hard for us to determine exactly how much damage has been done.

Gardenias, for example, can be severely damaged by cold temperatures.

The leaves are not very hardy and will fall off with reasonably cool temperatures. While we might think that the plant has “crossed over”, we cannot fully know until spring.

Often times, stems and branches that are “dead” set bud and leaf out in April.

If your plants have been damaged by cold, hold off on pulling out the pruners and the shears. At this point in the season pruning, especially hard pruning on woody plants, can cause much more damage than good.

First, pruning almost always initiates new growth, even at this time of year. With warm temperatures that we are likely to experience, buds may break and new growth can begin. If we have another cold snap and a heavy frost or freeze, all of the new growth stands the chance of being damaged or killed. Second, cold damage can take a while to rear its ugly head.

It can be days or even weeks before the extent of damage is fully know. Being the lazy gardener that I am, I want to prune once and be done. If you jump the gun and prune early, you stand a chance of missing some of the damaged tissue.

Lastly, pruning early can actually cause you to remove more plant material than is necessary. Sometimes, that “dead” tissue will come back to life and live happily ever after. If you prune before you can see the transition point from live to dead, you could be removing healthy wood.

If you are feeling giddy and must get out in the garden, try this instead. Don’t worry about the cold damage. Prune off those branches that you know are dead — for sure dead tissue can be removed at any time. If you haven’t already, remove the dead parts from the crowns of ornamental grasses, rake out the leaves, remove old flower stalks and start a compost bin. If you simply can’t wait and must prune plants now, scratch the damaged stems with your thumb nail and check for green tissue before you start hacking. Remember that if you are doing hard pruning, use proper pruning techniques to reduce problems from disease later down the road. Maybe with a little patience and TLC, your garden will look better than it did before.

For more information on proper pruning techniques, contact your local County Extension office or visit

Garden Talk is written by Hunter McBrayer, Regional Extension Agent, of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

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