Evaluating the damage

I just realized that for four of the past four winters, we’ve had cold damage of some sort or another in the garden.

  • Winter 2020/2021. On February 12, 2021 we experienced the worst ice storm in the 16 years that we’ve lived here.
  • Winter 2021/2022. On December 25-26, 2021, we had a record 20 inches of snow.
  • Winter 2022/2023. Last winter, we suddenly dropped into the 20’s after it had been rainy and warm beforehand – this happened twice – once on 12/22/2022 and once again on 1/28/2023. 
  • Winter 2023/2024. This winter, we had an ice storm on January 13, 2024, followed by record lows, followed immediately by more ice on January 17th.

I’m beginning to see a pattern here.

Bushes smashed by fallen poplar branches in an ice storm
Ice storm 2/12/2021
20 inches of snow around the house, garden, and surrounding woodlands!
Record snow 12/26/2021
Ice crystals covered in organic debris extruded from saturated clay soil.
Ice exuded from wet soil 1/28/2023
Ice covering the small green leaves of manzanita Emerald Carpet
Ice storm 1/17/2024

So, I guess let’s take our annual, traditional lap around the garden to see which plants look crappy this winter… Making their ice storm debut are most of the larger penstemon varieties growing in the yard. These have never been damaged by winter before, but now almost every single one looks like this. Normally, they would be covered in green, healthy leaves, just like the weeds coming up in the background. The penstemon stems are still wick (green, alive) as Dickon from The Secret Garden (by Frances Hodgson Burnett) would say, but we’ll see if they actually recover or not come spring.

Also damaged for the first time ever are the Sisyrinchium striatum. I’m not worried about these. They should pull out of this just fine. So many weeds…Why don’t those ever get killed by the weather?

Most of the red hot pokers (Kniphofia cultivars) also look terrible, but I think they will recover. They looked like this or worse after the ice storm of 2021.

While looking at all the damage, I noticed the dwarf fernleaf bamboo (Pleioblastus distichus) was starting to run (white arrow). Might be time to take it out before it becomes a liability. Not watering it during the summer probably kept it in check for the last four years. But now that it is comfortable, I am a little concerned about how aggressive it might become.

My sweet myrtle (Myrtus communis ‘Tarentina’) was damaged for the first time. You can see the leaves that were below the snow and ice stayed green, while those in the upper crown got blasted by the cold. I suspect it might still be okay and resprout, although I haven’t been brave enough to look too closely.

Also making a debut in the winter damage category, common sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’). I grew this back in Wisconsin, where it was much, much colder (zone 4) and where I never saw winter damage. Just another clue that it was probably the sudden drop in temperature from warm and wet to icy cold that caused the problems this year.

My cute little Phlomis lanata didn’t like the ice or cold at all. There are a few green leaves down at the bottom. Another case of wait and see, though I think I have some rooted cuttings tucked away in the greenhouse as a backup.

I was inspired by the old food cans used as pots in Mexico and decided I would try something similar in our own garden. I placed a bunch out on a stump in December hoping they would rust up by spring. Well, ice formed in each one, causing their bottoms to bulge. I’ve since hammered them back into shape.

Blackened hardy oleander (Nerium oleander). Made it through last winter okay. Not looking so good this year. I also have one in a pot that I was tired of dragging into the greenhouse every winter, so it sat outside during the cold. It looks terrible now too. I am not confident that either one is going to make it, and to be honest, that is fine. I want to try something new if they didn’t.

Surprisingly, all three of the Agave bracteosa look pretty good, despite some spots and minor rot here and there. I covered them several days in advance of the cold snap, which may have been enough for the leaves dry out a little before the temperatures dropped.

The leaves on every dwarf Jerusalem sage in our yard (Phlomis fruticosa ‘nana’) are all curled and slightly frostburnt. The amazing thing is that these leaves were completely frozen solid and shattered to little pieces when I tried brushing the ice off of them during the storm. Except for the disfigurement and burnt edges, they look like they might actually survive.

Our Azara microphylla continues to decline. It started looking sad last summer during the drought. The recent ice and cold in January certainly didn’t help and it looks worse and worse with each passing week. The only reason I haven’t cut it down yet is that I want to root a few more cuttings off of it. The cuttings that I planted around the yard last fall as insurance were unfortunately also hit hard by the cold spell and have a lot of black leaves and I can’t tell yet whether they will make it or not.

From L to R, Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’ looks fine, Fagus sylvatica (brown large leaves) is fine, but all the leaves on Baccharis pilularis have turned black and fallen off. I am almost 100% certain it will resprout though. Note, the Himalayan blackberry off to the right and in the foreground also looks completely unfazed. Oh goody (sarcasm).

The leaves of the Prunus ilicifolia look awful, but I suspect the plant is okay. This plant is a lot hardier than many people give it credit for.

Damaged for the first time ever, creeping wire vine Muehlenbeckia axillaris (left) has dropped a lot of leaves. I’m betting it will recover. Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Roman Beauty’ (right) was outright killed. This cultivar is very sensitive to cold compared to others like ‘Arp’. Too bad, I like it’s scrambly habit.

Lots of brown leaves on the Rhamnus alerternus ‘Variegata’ in the middle background. The worst it has ever looked. Fortunately, the Himalayan blackberry is taking over, so at least I have a quick replacement if the Rhamnus dies (more sarcasm).

Nice to see Delphinium trollifolium emerging. Spring is here by my reckoning. I’ve got a ton of little seedlings germinating out in the coldframe, so should soon have more on the way.

Everything about my Eryngium paniculatum looks absolutely pathetic. This is a sad one for me. Hoping it will either resprout from the roots or that there are some viable seeds left in the seedheads. This was one of my favorite drought proof plants.

L to R, Mahonia aquifolium (fine), Leptospermum namadgiensis (dropping some leaves, but I hope it is fine), Baccharis pilularis (almost all leaves are black) and Ceanothus gloriosus ‘Anchor Bay’ (mostly fine).

In the completely unfazed category, a nice unknown compact variety of strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) that I started from a cutting several years ago. Annoyingly, the squirrels have completely denuded the strawberry trees in the back yard again. See that shed in the background? That’s where they are located. At the end of December, you would have seen both trees blooming there, softening one corner of the shed. Now, every single leafy branch has been completely nipped off and all that is left are branch stubs. 

Mahonia fortunei ‘Dan Hinkle’ got burnt. Should be fine. So far, all of my other mahonias appear undamaged.

Another really sad one, Eriogonum umbellatum, has turned almost completely black. One of my favorites. Hopefully, it resprouts.

Arctostaphylos edmunsii ‘Rosy Dawn’ wasn’t a surprise. It looks this crappy every winter, regardless of ice or cold. Should grow out of it, but it is time to try growing it in a hotter, drier spot as I am tired of the winter uglies.

Fabiana imbricata was unexpectedly toast. Oh well, it was too big for this spot anyway. Time for something new.

The Arctostaphylos manzanita that was weighed down by ice has completely bounced back.

There is a small bush of Arctostaphylos x ‘White Lanterns’ growing underneath it. From a distance, White Lanterns looks okay. But up close, you can see the leaves on the lower branches have turned completely black and there are leaf spots on most leaves. This is normal for this cultivar in our yard.

Back by our pump house towards the center of the photo, you can see that there is one tree of Thuja plicata ‘Lobbii’ slumped over and covering the corner of the shed. We’ve since tied it back up to a nearby fencepost. Look at all those weeds sprouting in the gravel path running down the center of the photo… The new concrete flagstone path highlighted in the last two posts is off to the right, between the rock garden and the house.

In the basalt rock garden, Cotoneaster glaucophyllus looks bad.

I had no idea I was supposed to cover my Pyrrosia lingua during the cold, so it didn’t get done. Evidently, it was covered by enough snow as the leaves are only slightly burnt by the cold.

Let’s end on a couple good notes. Our native snow queen (Veronica regina-nivalis) has started blooming.

And, really, really good news, my Agave parryi ‘JC Raulston’ continues to look excellent too. I guess covering it up with a bucket a few days ahead of the ice and cold was the right thing to do.

That’s a wrap on today’s post showing what winter wrought on the garden. I haven’t been out there too much because it has been raining most every weekend and I am enjoying a break away from all of the garden chores. I’ve mainly been keeping my head firmly indoors and only heading out occasionally to weed, plant seeds, and to clean the hummingbird feeders. Honestly, the only two plants I am truly sad about that were damaged are the Eryngium paniculatum and the Eriogonum umbellatum. The Azara is a bummer, but it was looking bad already. I would also be sad if the Phlomis and the penstemons don’t pull through, but those are more easy to replace. And, although this post did focus on a lot of the damage, it’s important to note that most everything else in the garden looks okay. I am starting to get a little excited about spring. We’ll see what the next few weeks bring our way.

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. tracy

    I hope the next weeks bring a little warmth to you. And a very good point, why doesn’t the freeze kill off at least a few of the weeds!

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      If only I focused all my efforts on growing weeds, I’d be the king of gardening.

  2. Kris P

    Ugh, snow and ice are pretty when viewed from a distance but they can certainly be destructive. Both are foreign concepts for me – I haven’t even seen the briefest freeze in the 13 years we’ve been in our current location. I hope most plants come back as you’ve predicted. I was surprised that your resident squirrels eat Arbutus unedo leaves! I’ve never even seen squirrels touch the fruit on our Arbutus ‘Marina’ much less the leaves (although the little monsters consumed the majority of our navel oranges this year).

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      The squirrels aren’t actually eating the leaves, they are snipping off all of the branches and dragging them off to their nests. They’ve been doing this every winter. Very annoying little creatures!

  3. Denise Maher

    I’ve used the word “wick” ever since reading about Dicken too 😉 I left my seed stalks up on Eryngium paniculatum all winter and will look for seedlings. If I mention seedlings on the blog, remind me you need some! From your records, it looks like these extreme events are occurring with regularity now, so all bets are off…

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      I just found some little 4″ pots of E. paniculatum at Xera Plants this weekend. I bought two. Thank goodness I don’t have to start from seed. I love that plant. It’s been a real winner. Sturdy, beautiful plant except for this last winter.

  4. S.

    Shhh, don’t tell Loree, but I didn’t cover my pyrrosia lingua either and they also did fine. I did cover the pyrrosia histata (hirsata? always get this wrong) but I don’t think it actually liked that very much.
    Have you ever grown Lomatium dissectum? I just discovered it and it looks intriguing (plus common name is great, fernleaf biscuitroot) but I don’t think I’m set up for it.

    I did notice the slight irony of your pointing out an ironclad survivor and worrying about it getting out of control in the same post where you are mourning your winter weather losses…

    I’m struggling with how to garden with this winter weather pattern. Don’t really want to only garden with z6 plants, a bit hesitant on z8 but I guess it’s just keep try things until I get it right.

    btw, I may have a competitor in weather toughness to even (#!!%$)blackberry. This fall I dug out a self-resurrected Dr. Huey rootstock rose (did I mention hard to kill?) When doing more cleanup a few days later I found a piece of stem I’d pruned and missed getting in the can. It looked like I’d just cut it off, so just for grins I stuck it into the pot where I’d temporarily potted up the rest of it. The fabric pot has just been sitting outside since. It was behind a stack of pavers but nothing else. Got covered in ice, thawed, etc. That damn not even well-prepped rootstock has rooted in and it’s growing. I didn’t really need another one but here we are. (Would share if you wanted it, understand if you don’t. It’s a bit scruffy vigorous rambler with one season bloom. I don’t think even deer could make a dent. )
    My squirrels nip doug fir branch tips for nests but inevitably they fall back out of the tree and I find little piles of the trimmings all over.

    1. danger garden

      Who are you S? Thing is you shouldn’t have to cover your Pyrrosia! They “should” be fine, some of mine only have minimal damage.

      1. Botanica Chaotica

        Good to know that I shouldn’t have to cover my Pyrrosia. Once I read how yours struggled to come back after 2023’s winter, and I read about you cover (I thought) one of yours, I thought that I should be doing the same.

      2. S.

        Loree, What he said⬆️
        I’m just one of your local blog readers, we’ll probably cross paths somewhere one of these days.

    2. Botanica Chaotica

      I actually really like most Lomatiums and L. dissectum is a real beauty. The problem we have in our yard is that they are rodent magnets and seem to be eaten from both aboveground and belowground unless they are behind fortress walls.

      I’m struggling how to garden with the extremes. It’s that combination of killer drought in the summer and unpredictable weather in the winter that seems to get me every time. If I can find plants that do fine in drought, then they hate our winters. And, if they do fine through our winters, then they hate our summer droughts. It’s a rare plant that takes both extremes.

      I just ripped out a one-hit-wonder climbing rose last year. Dr. Huey is a really attractive rose, but I need something with a longer season of interest. I replaced our rose with Radway Sunrise, which is supposed to be a rebloomer.

      1. S.

        eek, rodents! No thanks! I fed them enough lilies as it is.

        I’m just reintroducing roses after many years- partly because I miss having more fragrance (re: lilies, RIP) Dr Huey just showed up, I think we must have missed some root when I yanked the previous rose and it just slowly came back (so very hard to kill..) I just identified it this year. But “he” made me realize I would like some roses again. I’ve got some climbers arriving but I’ll be interested to know how your Radway Sunrise does.

  5. danger garden

    Yay for your Agave parryi ‘JC Raulston’ (and the bracteosa too). I’m sad to see your Fabiana imbricata didn’t make it. Mine is so small it didn’t get planted out last year, I guess when I do plant it out I will do so knowing it may not make it. As for your noticing a trend, I’m sick of hearing “ah with global warming you’ll be planting like you live in California”… when the reality is the opposite.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Thank goodness something made it. The Fabiana has never been winter killed before. I think it was that 1-2-3-4 punch of warm/wet followed by ice, followed by sudden cold, followed by more ice. It’s a tough plant, normally…

  6. Chavli

    Those are 4 years of Winter extremes that you listed. Then there are the ‘off the charts’ Summers: the opposite end of climate woes. Plants like Garrya elliptica, Arbutus unedo and some Arctostaphylos are the answer. They Rock! Especially since you are good at taking cuttings. (Maybe you could post about that).

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Your comment is a good reminder that I need to rescue some cuttings that got pushed aside in the winter rush. Yes, I will add cuttings to my line-up for future posts.

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