Reviving Your Ornamentals From the Harsh Winter

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Sometimes it seems like every winter is worse than the one before. We may not realize though how a hard winter can be even harder for our lawn and ornamentals. So, when Spring has sprung use these few tips to leave that winter damage far behind you.

Signs of Winter Damage

Although your lawn and perennials may be well adjusted to snow and cold they can still be harmed by winter weather. While snow actually provides cover from harsh cold, direct contact with ice is one the most harmful elements of winter. Ice freezes plant cells and causes plants to become brittle and crack open. Low-lying areas of your yard may be prone to ice. Thaw-freeze conditions common in late Autumn and early Spring can cause severe root damage.

The easiest way to assess lawn, shrub, and tree damage is to wait until mid-spring when plants are starting to green-up. Patches of lawn, branches, perennials, or shrubs that do not green-up and remain brittle and brown are dead.

Shrubs - If an entire shrub looks brown and crunchy grasp a twig or small branch and try to snap it off. If it comes off easily and looks brown inside, continue snapping off larger and larger twigs and branches. If all are dead inside, the shrub is probably also dead. If you ever encounter green and supple wood inside a branch, the shrub still lives. Simply prune off any dead twigs and branches. With proper care, even shrubs that lose substantial limbs from winter damage will come back strong for summer. It may take a few seasons, however, for them to regain their original size.

Lawns - Check that brown patches of lawn are dead by trying to pull up the grass. If it comes up easily in tufts, it is dead. If the roots hold steadfast use sharp scissors to cut off the brown foliage. It will regrow quickly.

Reviving Your Ornamentals From the Harsh Winter

Perennials - Most perennials will stay brown longer than turf. This does not mean that they are dead. When nighttime temperatures are above 35 degrees, use a pair of garden shears to prune off the dead brown growth on your perennials up to 3 inches above the soil line. By early May you should notice new green growth emerging from the ground. If you don't, your perennial did not survive the winter.

Signs of Salt Damage

Being that salt is a premiere tool of landscapers to prevent ice on walkways many are surprised to learn that it can cause substantial damage to any plant. Salt washed from roads onto lawns or gardens is soaked into the soil by melting ice and poisons the plant's roots, causing chronic damage. Salt sprayed onto foliage by a passing car causes burns and scalding.

Dead leaf edges, brown lawn patches, shriveled growth, and crunchy dead leaves and branches are all signs of salt damage. Thankfully, there is one unique symptom of salt damage that will help you diagnose it. Salt damage will always be more severe on the side of the plant facing a road or walkway.

As soon as you notice the damage use sharp shears to prune off any dead or affected growth. When nighttime temperatures reach 40 degrees soak your damaged lawn or ornamental with hose water. Soak for at least 10 minutes. This will flush any extra salt away from the roots.

If you have an icy problem area on a path or driveway consider using non-sodium de-icing agents to address the ice instead of road salt. These products are sold at most hardware stores and have been shown to be much safer for ornamentals and turf.


When nighttime temperatures are above 35 degrees you can reseed any dead patches in your lawn. First, buy a high quality seed in the same variety as your lawn. Then, use a sharp spade to cut into the earth around the patch. Since the roots are dead, the patch will be easy to yank up and discard.

Reviving Your Ornamentals From the Harsh Winter

Sprinkle your new seed on the soil and lightly rake it in. Then, gently water the seed in. Water the patch lightly every morning. Once the seed begins to germinate, water deeply. As it grows, reduce watering to once a week in weeks that get less than 1 inch of rain. In June, fertilize with a high-phosphorus fertilizer and watch that patch fill in.


The Spring season is all about new growth. The best way to encourage healthy new growth is by cutting away any remaining dead growth and winter damage. Use zip ties to gather dead tufts of ornamental grasses and liriope into a ponytail and cut them 5 inches above the soil line. You want to start the new season with a clean slate. Get rid of any dead matter on the ground by raking it into landscaping bags.

Fertilizer - One of the best things you can do for your waking up plants is to give them a bump of nutrition with organic matter. Before you mulch your garden beds (usually in mid-April) cover the soil in 1 inch of organic matter such as compost or Leaf Tone. Mulch over this fertile layer for healthy Spring and Summer growth. Granular compost is a great product for fertilizing lawns. Once your lawn has greened-up, fill a lawn spreader with granular compost and spread it evenly across your lawn. The granuals are absorbed slowly for all-season protection.

Caution - There are some plants that should never be pruned in the Spring! Early to mid-Spring blooming shrubs and trees form their buds in the fall and can only be pruned directly after blooming. If you prune back azaleas, rhododendron, hydrangea, dogwood, forsythia, camellias, magnolias, and any spring blooming fruit tree, you will cut off the buds and effectively prevent your ornamental from blooming. If your Spring bloomer is severely winter damaged prune off the worst of the dead branches. The cold may have killed off the dormant buds and the shrub may not bloom regardless, or may have less flowers than usual. After their normal bloom-time prune the spring bloomer back about 1/3 and you will notice vigorous new growth.

Reviving Your Ornamentals From the Harsh Winter

Giving a quick trim and clean here and there is an easy way to jumpstart your healthy summer lawn and garden. The winter was a rough one but it's over now! You and your beautiful yard can finally celebrate together.