Local landscapers offer tips to care for plants suffering 'winter burn'

At the Countryside Flower Shop in Crystal Lake, nursery manager Karen Campney said she’ll speak with customers, maybe even up to five times a day, who are worried because their evergreens are now brown.

The home gardeners might have the initial instinct of cutting off all the brown, Campney said.

“They really don’t want to cut it all off because the buds for the new growth are there on where the brown is,” Campney said. “You have to fertilize it.”

Many people are dealing with winter burn this year, which is much worse than past years because of the Midwest’s harsh winter.

“It’s basically like sunburn that the evergreens get, and it dries foliage,” Campney said. “It doesn’t show up right away after it happens. It shows up later because the wind comes along and basically dries up that foliage. That’s when you start to see the brown starting to show up.”

Cutting off the brown parts of the plant is not the best thing to do, especially when there are buds on the stems and branches. Campney said.

“If you cut all that off, you don’t have any buds farther back,” Campney said. “You have to wait for that to come out.”

“Patience is the key,” she added.

There are ways to help an evergreen make it through winter burn.

Campney recommends adding fertilizer at the base of the evergreen up to around the drip line (about a foot from the base), and then trim the plant in June.

If it is a drier spring, people should water the plant, Campney added.

Bob Kolze is the owner of Kolze’s Corner Gardens in Woodstock. He said he’s getting lots of questions about garden and plant conditions, even when he’s not at work. Half of the customers who walk into the shop are asking about winter burn.

He said spring is about three-and-a-half to four weeks behind.

To help give plants a “booster shot,” Kolze recommended mixing water with fertilizer, such as Miracid.

“It’s a great way to wake plants up,” he said.

For perennials, Kolze recommended doing some trimming to see if there is any green hiding underneath the brown. Then gardeners can add fertilizer to help plants grow.

“I would let the fertilizer do its thing and evaluate it at the end of May and see the result,” Kolze said.

For perennial flowers, such as roses, people can tug on them while wearing gloves to see whether they’re growing. If there is no resistance, then the plant is dead.

If there is resistance, that means the roots are strong and the plant is growing.

Kolze said using mushroom compost or a product such as Purple Cow can be helpful for a garden and might be able to help a plant catch up in two to three weeks.

But at a certain point, some plants might not be salvageable.

“This year, by Memorial Day, if you haven’t seen anything emerging, then it’s pretty much done,” Kolze said.

Mary McClelland, co-owner of the McHenry County Nursery Inc./Glacier Oaks Nursery in Harvard, said people don’t have to go far to see the effects of winter burn.

“Most of the plants that took the hit are non-native evergreens, such as the Japanese yew and the Chinese juniper,” McClelland said.

McClelland said the length of the cold temperatures worsened the winter burn.

She said people can check the buds on plants and squeeze a few, or scratch off the bark. If there is green, then the plant is alive.

“If those are dead, then the plant is toast,” McClelland said.

She said people should still wait a few weeks before making a decision on whether to get rid of a potentially dead plant.

“If they want to save it, they should wait before taking it down, another few weeks, when things bud out and buds are breaking, you should be able to tell,” McClelland said.

“Some of that brown from over the winter will recover, once the roots start taking moisture,” she added.

If a plant was tightly pruned, it is more likely to have been affected by winter burn, and may struggle to recover because there is little new growth, McClelland said. Plants that are loosely pruned can just have the brown cut off and let the green fill in.

McClelland said she wouldn’t spend too much on fertilizer, unless a plant is worth saving.

“It’s not going to make anything that is dead come back,” McClelland said.

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