By now you’re tired of looking at them. Burned leaves, scorched stems, brown vines; the ugly consequence of January’s unusually cold nights. The damage isn’t difficult to spot. All across southern California, in yards and public spaces, you’ve been looking at browned-out lantana, scorched agapanthus, bare bougainvillea and palms with toasted fronds. Almost two months ago, In mid January, gardeners were reminded of just where we live. Every once in a while in Orange County, a northern freeze swoops down upon us and takes a bite out of the sub-tropical plants that have immigrated north and into our gardens. The nights of January 13, 14 and 15, 2007 were such a reminder.
It could have been worse. Coastal Orange County gardens were not struck nearly as badly as those in Los Angeles County or the inland empire. On a visit last week to The Huntington Botanical Gardens, near Pasadena, the damage was enough to make a plant lover nauseous. Decades old cycads outside the recently complete conservatory were brown and crisp. Fishtail palms were hit hard. The new children’s garden was now a display of “brown” plants, including Eugenia, Ficus and mature tree Aloes. Eight foot hedges were crisp; the color of cardboard.
Jim Folsom, director of the gardens at The Huntington says that temperatures there dropped to nineteen degrees, the sharpest cold snap in a decade. Jim added, “This has been a very warm year, so the plants were not hardened off. This was a real shock to them. Bam! From eighty-five degrees to nineteen degrees”.
Our gardens took a hit as well. Soft, non-woody plats like impatiens, begonias and geraniums are already in the compost pile by now. The fleshy, water-filled foliage and stems of these tender plants were killed straight away. These were lost, but are inexpensive, easy to replace and are accents, not the backbones of our gardens anyway.
For the rest of your frost bitten landscape I have been advising that you not rush out and begin any plant first-aid; pruning, cutting, clipping, removing leaves or even re-planting. Instead, my advice has been to do nothing at all; but to wait for warmer weather to see just how serious the damage is to your plant patients.
For coastal gardeners, you’ve waited long enough. You’ve looked at those brown plants for almost two months. Now is the time to get out in your gardens, survey the damage and begin your diagnosis.
Starting now and during the next thirty days you should be able to figure out what is alive and what has been lost. Begin by checking your toasted Hibiscus, Cape Honeysuckle, Trumpet Vine and other patients for signs of new growth. Look along the stems and branches for green buds and emerging leaves, it will be easy to spot among the dry, brown foliage. If you don’t spot any new growth yet, check back in a couple of weeks.
Don’t give up on plants too early. Keep checking; a few may not re-sprout until April or even May. If you think a plant is dead, do a scratch test to confirm your suspicions. Scratch the bark with a sharp knife or your fingernail to see if it is still green inside. If it is green, then it is very likely that your plant will grow again. Be patient.
If you see signs of new growth along the stems, using your pruning shears cut the plant back to just above this healthy, living growth. Move through the entire plant, cutting off the lifeless withered growth and revealing the emerging leaves to the sunlight. The plants will look immediately better, albeit somewhat bare.
After the pruning, an application of organic fertilizer at the base of the plant will speed its recovery. With the warming temperatures and lengthening days ahead, you may be surprised at how quickly most of your frizzled plants will recover. By mid spring or summer, the unpleasant memories of January’s winter wrath will have faded to memory; replaced by the sight of green, healthy plants once again.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar