March freeze raises concerns for damage to early blooming Ozarks plants

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Landscape shrubs and perennials can be vulnerable to freeze damage, especially when temperatures fluctuate wildly as they have so far in the Ozarks. Damaged plant tissue can benefit from gentle pruning, but read what the experts advise before you remove too much.

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — The calendar may still say winter, but unseasonably warm temperatures during February and March convinced many blooming plants that spring has arrived. The result is trees, flowering shrubs and an assortment of perennials blooming a month ahead of schedule.

The bad news is that the average last frost date in southwest Missouri is April 20 meaning there is lots of time left for these happy and colorful trees and flowers to get bitten back.

The news is especially disheartening for those with fruit trees that are ready to bloom laments Kelly McGowan, horticulture educator with University of Missouri Extension.

“Flowering plants are two to three weeks ahead of schedule in this area,” says McGowan. “A downside of early blooms is that they finish early or get damaged by late freezes or frosts.”

It may be nice to have all of this color in February and early March, but early blooming puts flowering plants at risk of freeze damage when winter reasserts itself. Especially in southwest Missouri where the weather can be erratic.

“My advice is to enjoy it as long as it lasts, and if it freezes, we’ll deal with it,” said McGowan.

Dormancy is how many native plants endure winter cold. But when unseasonably warm weather causes plants to bloom early, a cold snap can bring them to an early end.

Plants are a lot less winter hardy when they are actively growing. Most of the plants will probably survive a dip to just below freezing. But once the temps dip to 27 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, flowers turn to dishrags on a stick.

“The degree of damage is determined by how cold it gets and how long it stays cold,” McGowan explains. “Other factors, like wind, may help protect plants when air temperature plummets.”

As the wind stirs the air, it can mix with residual heat out of the ground. It can moderate the air temperature and protect plants.

Gardeners and homeowners can take some precautions when temperatures are forecast to drop.

One recommendation is to to cover plants before temperatures drop. Cardboard boxes or pots can be turned over to cover small plants, and sheets can cover larger flowerbeds or small shrubs.

Then wait until spring arrives and plants begin to grow before making any final decisions. This is the best time to assess overall cold injury to plants.

As damaged plants begin to grow in the spring, prune only dead and severely damaged wood. Do not prune live wood. The larger the leaf surface area of the plant, the better it can manufacture food and grow new tissues.

If fruit plants have injured flower buds, prune less than normal to compensate.

Be sure to also water properly. Make sure the plant is not further damaged by drought. Pay special attention to evergreens and plants situated under eaves. Water properly throughout the spring, summer, and fall.

Fertilization is recommended if the soil lacks adequate amounts of basic plant nutrients.

On severely damaged fruit plants, remove as much of the developing fruit as possible to allow it to overcome the winter injury rather than produce fruit.

“The best thing you can do for your injured tree or shrub is to avoid further stress during the coming season by giving it special attention and care,” says McGowan.

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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