The spring after the winter that was (is?)

The calendar says yes, yes – but the ground says no, no. And that, folks, will be the story of the spring 2014 gardening season.

We’re just coming out of the hardest winter we’ve seen in decades. What will this mean for our gardens this year – and for the way we take care of them? I asked several people – one garden professional and several award-winning local gardeners – for their opinions on what we’re facing in the coming months. Here’s what I found out:

Be patient

We’ll have to wait longer to get started, says Amin Datoo, long-time manager of Sheridan Nurseries’ flagship Yonge St. location. “The ground is frozen about four feet down, instead of the usual three feet,” he says, so it will take longer to warm up.

And that means our plants will be slower to come up this spring.

So don’t give up on your pet perennials too early. They may seem dead, but like Monty Python’s legendary Norwegian blue parrot, they’re only sleeping.

Spring growth likely won’t show up until mid- to late April this year, which will make a big difference in how we deal with some of our favourite plants like roses, hydrangeas and ornamental grasses.

If you were a good gardener and hilled your roses last fall, Amin advises leaving the hills in place until mid- to late April, to protect plants from surprise late frosts. When you see those first tiny leaflets breaking out along rose canes, that’s the signal to remove the hills (and to prune your roses).

Tough roses like this rugosa should come through winter just fine. PHOTO: Mary Fran McQuade
Tough roses like this rugosa should come through winter just fine.
PHOTO: Mary Fran McQuade

Pretty much the same thing goes for hydrangeas, even tough-as-nails Annabelle (she’s the one that grows like crazy and make big white flowers every year). Wait for those leaflets/leaf buds to show up on the stem, then leave about 12 inches (30 cm) of stem when you’re pruning.

That’s also Amin’s advice for ornamental grasses – cut back only to 12 inches/30 cm. That will leave you some live plant growth lower down, if freaky frosts nip the buds farther up the stem.

Don’t panic at some damage

If you have shrubs that keep their leaves in winter, like euonymus, holly and cotoneaster, you may find they look a little ratty this spring. Those leaves have been exposed to wind and weather all winter long, explains Amin, so they could be dried out and even dead. (They haven’t been able to draw water from the frozen ground.) They’re also pretty tough, though. Give them time for new growth, clip back the dead tips and they should perk up again by summer.

If your trees were hit by winter’s terrible ice storms, you may find yourself with a lot more sun in your garden this year. Don’t panic if your hostas and other shade plants show some sunburned leaves this spring and summer. “That doesn’t really damage the plant,” Amin says. “They will adjust to it eventually.”

Hostas may get some sunburn  this season if your trees were damaged. PHOTO: Mary Fran McQuade
Hostas may get some sunburn this season if your trees were damaged.
PHOTO: Mary Fran McQuade

Beachers are optimistic

The local gardeners I spoke to here in the Beach pretty much agree with Amin’s assessment.

Marsha Pine isn’t too worried. “We may have to prune back hard this year, but that’s not a bad thing,” she says. Pruning gives us a chance to get rid of damaging things like branches that rub against each other. We can also cut out “old wood” – branches that aren’t flowering much anymore.

Experienced gardeners like Marsha know the magic of pruning: that it actually stimulates a shrub to grow and put out new shoots where it’s been cut. (You might want to do a little research first on how to prune, though.)

Another optimistic Beacher is Maggie Butterfield Dickinson, who grows a number of prize-winning roses in her garden. “The good thing is that we haven’t had any freezing and thawing this winter,” she points out.

We humans may not like it, but our garden plants are much happier tucked under a permanent blanket of snow in the winter months. It keeps the ground at a steady temperature, so they’re not prematurely wakened by false springs. Solidly frozen earth also protects plant roots from being disturbed by the expansion and contraction of soil as it thaws and then freezes again.

Like many other Beachers, tree damage is a concern for Peggy Sloan. She lost a large tree in her garden during the December ice storm and won’t know if other tree branches are at risk until cracks show in them in spring.

Also a dedicated rose grower, Peggy expects her hardy species roses (like rugosa and glauca) and even the David Austin Old English Roses to come through without too much trouble. The more tender hybrid tea roses, however, may suffer a bit more damage. (See Amin’s and Marsha’s advice above.)

We may lose some tender old favourites this year, but, as Marsha Pine says, “That’s an inevitable part of gardening. Very few things last forever.” And look at it this way: Lots of new, improved varieties of your old faves may have appeared since you planted your first rose/hydrangea/hosta. Now you have a place to plant them!


Mary Fran McQuade is a hobby gardener and freelance writer

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