Gardens are at the mercy of Mother Nature.
This winter, the deep layer of snow has provided more than enough insulation for perennials and small shrubs. Fifteen cm (six inches) of snow keeps the plants at a constant temperature regardless of the weather, so this year even the windswept areas are well protected.
Larger plants have not fared as well. Heavy, wet snow and wind has snapped and torn branches and limbs.
Understanding plants’ growth habits make cleanup decisions easier.
New growth on a spruce or pine tree develops at the ends of the branches. When ends or tops of branches are broken, it will take two years for the plant to put out new growth. If the break or cut is in an area where there are no needles, it is unlikely that new growth will appear. It is best to cut the branch back flush to the main trunk.
When a spruce or pine loses its top, one or more upper branched will slowly move upwards to take the place of the lost leader. The process can be helped by choosing one of the top branches and tying it to a stick to keep the branch upright. In a couple of years, the support can be removed as the branch will have developed into the leader.
Hardy deciduous plants are more resilient. They will continue to grow as long as they have a good root system.
When a living deciduous tree is cut down, new shoots will grow from the base or roots. If a large branch is removed, the plant will send out a tremendous amount of new growth in that same area attempting to produce enough vegetation to balance the intake from the roots. This type of growth is called water sprouts as they are long and skinny with no side branches. Removing the majority of the sprouts as they develop will help the plant form a better shape but is an ongoing process.
Start cleaning up damaged plants by removing the broken bits and assessing the damage. How much of the plant is left? Is the plant healthy? Is it safe? Is it pleasing to the eye? How important is the tree to the landscape?
The rule of thumb is to never remove more than a quarter of a plant in one season. If a larger amount of the plant has to be removed, think about removing the plant.
Examine the plant to see if the wood is healthy. Is there any rot? Does sap ooze from the bark? Are there sunken areas in the bark? A yes answer to any of these questions means that the plant is not healthy and could become a safety hazard.
Safety is a big issue. A weak or rotten tree or branch can do damage when it falls. A sudden bump forming from under the ground within a few feet of a tree can be a sign that an anchor root has broken, leaving the plant susceptible to the next strong wind. When this is the case, it is time to remove the tree.
Once the broken pieces are removed, look at the shape of the plant. If it is attractive or functional, it is time to remove jagged branches. Cut broken branched back to the next branch. A smooth cut will heal faster than a rough one. Stubs rarely heal over.
When a plant is not attractive but functional, it can be left and a new plant added to the same area in the spring. Once the new plant is established, remove the old one.
As the snow melts, keep an eye on the trees and shrubs, cleaning up broken plants as they become assessable.
Linda Tomlinson is a horticulturalist who lives near Rocky Mountain House. She can be reached at www.igardencanada.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.