Gardening Guru: Exploring damage control

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Your cedars are bent over, recovering from the heavy weight of snow on their branches from earlier this winter. Your young apple tree has had the bark nibbled upon by the local rabbit population, which seems to have exploded since the autumn. The yew hedge is burned on the south and west sides, there is no apparent life in your butterfly bush and your roses look like a clown without a party to go to: all weepy and brown. This may not describe your garden but it does mine.

This is the scene through my window as I write on this sunny, early spring morning from my home office. It would be a landscape of devastation if it weren’t for the crocus in bloom and the happy faces of hellebores looking for some pollinating honeybees to work their magic. As you venture out of doors, like the hungry bear who emerges from her cave about this time of year, you will not be greeted with the most uplifting of sights, no doubt.  Welcome to the spring of 2014. The results of the most severe winter weather in living memory are before us.

I am here with some good news: all is not lost. Like Clark Kent, I have emerged from the telephone booth [only, in my case, it is the garden shed] armed not with the speed of a bullet but with information that will save a good many of your precious garden plants and your pride.


1. Winter burn. The dead foliage on the south and west sides of your yews, holly, boxwood, and other evergreen shrubs was not the result of a cold winter so much as they just got a sunburn in March. The sun is remarkably powerful as we approach spring.  As it reflects off of the late season snow it can burn the outside foliage of the aforementioned shrubs. The answer to this ‘problem’ is to do very little.  A vigorous brush with a gloved hand will shake loose some of the brown foliage, but for the most part your evergreens will look fresh as a daisy come late May to early June when new growth pushes past the dead, brown foliage. My advice: go play golf or fertilize the lawn. Note that you could have avoided this sunburn on your evergreens had you applied Wiltpruf last October. Alas, I didn’t either.


2. Salt damage. There are three prime areas of salt damage in our gardens this time of year: grass that has been burned at the margins of the driveway and on the boulevard by the street; plants that have salt-laden soil near their roots; and the west-facing foliage of cedar hedges and the like which received the brunt of the westerly winds and the salt spray that it carried off of the road.

The answer to all three dilemmas is to soak them down with fresh, clean water from the end of your garden hose. I am generally not a fan of hand-dousing your garden with precious tap water, but this time of year you can be forgiven for appearing frivolous with the pistol grip hose-end sprayer. Go nuts and soak the foliage of all plants that have been exposed to salt and salt spray.

Use a ‘water breaker’ to soak the roots around evergreens and shrubs that lead to your front door if you used salt this winter on the adjoining walkway.

Your lawn, however, will require a bit more attention as municipalities are notorious for spreading over-generous amounts of rock salt on sidewalks. I know, it is all in the name of safety, but salt is one of the most toxic chemicals in common use. Use enough of it around plants and you will not just kill them, you will sterilize the soil.

To save your tired lawn, spread a three or four centimetre layer of triple mix or lawn soil over the thin and damaged portions, broadcast grass seed by hand at the rate of about one kilo per 100 square metres. Rake the works smooth, step on it to get the soil and seed in firm contact and water it well for up to six weeks until it has germinated. 

Fertilize your entire lawn, especially the boulevard this time of year to strengthen it and bring it to life. Use a quality, slow release fertilizer with DDP iron in it for best results.


3. Snow damage. The weight of a wet snowfall may have pulled your cedars and junipers down to the ground, like they are saying a prayer. Ask them to say one for me as my cedar hedge is not looking too spiffy right now. I suggest that you either pull normally upright evergreens into an upright position and secure them there using long two inch by two inch stakes or guide wires secured in three positions with tent pegs hammered into the ground. The wires should pass through a section of old garden hose about 30 centimetres long where they meet the woody portion of the trees to prevent damage from the tense wires. 

Or you can just leave them alone and wait for the sap to rise. When late spring arrives and new growth appears, the chances are very good that your sad looking evergreens will miraculously find their own way into their naturally erect position. I can relate to them each morning as I awake from a good night's slumber. It takes me a while to get upright too. Sunshine, water and an inch of finished compost around the roots are the ‘coffee in the morning’ to your evergreens. 


4. Damaged by vermin. Young fruit trees may have been nibbled upon by rabbits and other vermin. When the snow lies deep, winter-ready rodents (versus the ones that hibernate) get hungry as their normal food sources are covered with snow. The bark on a young fruit tree or crabapple becomes very tempting by late winter. It you have lost the bark layer all the way around a branch on your tree or the trunk, it is now dead. However, if the rascally rodent only ate a portion of the bark around the branch or trunk, you could be in luck. Wait and see as your tree may just heal itself. Don’t underestimate the power of natures’ ability to fix things without our interference.

There is a theme to this article that you may have already picked up on: patience. It is true that we learn this lesson while gardening, when we pay attention. The roses in your garden are ready to have the soil that you mounded over them last autumn removed. Do it soon and apply dormant spray afterwards to prevent overwintering insects and diseases from wreaking havoc. Those of us in the business have been saying for years that it is the ‘freeze/thaw’ cycles that cause most rose damage, not low temperatures. This spring will be the supreme test of that theory as most areas did not experience the typical thaw cycles this past winter.

Only as our daytime temperatures rise and new growth appears all around us will we really know the extent to which damage actually occurred. 

Let’s just wait and see. By mid-June, we will know more and still have lots of time to make it right. I will be sure to address the subject then, when I have seen with my own eyes just how severe this past winter was on our precious plants. In the meantime, plant some pansies and violas in your garden as you can’t go wrong with an early splash of colour.



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Mark Cullen is Canada’s best-known gardening broadcaster and writer. He is the spokesperson for Home Hardware Lawn and Garden. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at and watch him Wednesday mornings on Canada AM. His column, which focuses on our growing zone, appears in the Hants Journal every two weeks.



Organizations: Canada AM, Hants Journal

Geographic location: Canada

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