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What appears dead may not be

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POSTED: March 13, 2014 5:30 p.m.

Another fine weekend has passed and S. suburbanis is looking for more out-of-doors nesting activities.
The freezes we have experienced bit some of our plants. Rapheolepsis has had patches of top layer leaves frosted in downtown Richmond Hill and the affected leaves have turned grayish brown. The dead leaves are unsightly against the green leaves below them that survived. Mexican fan palm has frond tips burned back and hanging limply from the green circular middle of the frond. Even sabal palm suffered some injury. A few sago palms have suffered freeze injury on parts of fronds leaving some leaflets buff tan and others green.
Since I have scolded S. suburbanis about putting fertilizer out this early — the ground is still way too cold for turf — he is looking for new targets. Pruning cold-injured plants should not be a target for his attention. As a rule of thumb, it is best not to prune off cold injured tissues until the plant has resumed growth in the spring. What appears to be dead may not in fact be dead — at least until S. suburbanis chops it off.
Give the plant a chance to show you what it can do before you start whacking on it. While injured tissues are dead, the passive defenses of those tissues are largely still intact. Pruning those injured tissues will open wounds that can be exploited by disease-causing pathogens. The dead leaves and twigs are a barrier to those organisms while they remain intact.
Pruning too early can create more problems than it solves. Once the plant resumes growth in the spring it has the chance to employ its active defenses to protect itself. Also, just because a frond has some freeze injury does not mean the whole frond needs to be removed. Woody plants will shed a leaf, frond or limb that does not contribute to the tree. It knows when a plant part should be shed better than we do. As long as the frond of that Mexican fan palm has a green center, it is shipping sugar to the stem.
Removing fronds prematurely unnecessarily further starves a plant that is already injured. Sago palms are the best example of the rewards that come from patience. About 20 years ago we had two winters back to back during which we experienced single-digit low temperatures. The sago palms in front of my then office in Savannah at Bull and Victory Drive had their fronds thoroughly frozen. Each one was entirely brown. We pruned them off in spring. The plants stood there naked with no visible growth for 12 months.
That winter one of my grounds maintenance crews told me we should cut it down, it’s dead and doesn’t look good in front of the department headquarters. I advised them that this was a careful plant and had survived on this planet long enough to leave its fossils in coal seams. We should give it some more time. Two months later it flushed out and remains there today, doing quite nicely, thank you. Patience is definitely a virtue with cold-injured plants.
S. suburbanis needs an alternate target. Plants that bloom on last year’s wood, like azaleas, are best pruned after they bloom but before new buds for next year are set. For azaleas, we generally recommend pruning after they bloom but before the Fourth of July.
Plants that bloom on this year’s wood, like crape myrtle, generally bloom after May. These plants are best pruned after the last freeze but before they start breaking buds for new growth. If you have a crape myrtle that has not been crape murdered and you want to prune it, now is the time. We are now past our last freeze of the winter. Buds should be breaking soon. You do not want to be thrashing about in the tree injuring newly emerged buds. A properly pruned tree does not look like it has been pruned. Crape myrtle can be a very elegant element in the landscape if given the chance.
UGA Bulletin 961 Pruning Ornamental Plants in the Landscape gives a good general overview. This link will take you to Bulletin 961: www.caes.uga.edu/applications/publications/files/pdf/B%20961_3.PDF.
If the summer weeds, chiefly Poa annua, have not shown up on your lawn yet, you may have time to put down a pre-emerge herbicide and benefit from it. No, it is still too cold to apply fertilizer to lawns. It is still too cold to lay sod of any type or seed with centipede. It is a good time to get your tomato transplants and get them growing.

Gardner lives in Keller and is the UGA extension agent for Glynn County, serving South Bryan.

 

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