Winter in North America is typically an uneventful time of year for plants, when growing slows or stops and when most plants go dormant. Because of that, average winter weather has very little negative impact on a landscape’s health. Extreme winter weather anomalies, however, can do some serious damage. Heavier than average precipitation, significant and sudden drops in temperature, longer than normal durations of freezing temperatures and winds—these occurrences can injure, if not gravely harm, our valued plants.
If there is one thing we can count on about extreme winter weather, it is that such weather is unpredictable but certain. It will happen at some point—we just don’t know when. The South and southeastern United States was reminded of this during the 2022 holiday season when a doozy of a storm blew in that will not soon be forgotten. The wind and cold temperatures packed a punch for our power grids and landscapes over the Christmas weekend. The weather event presented itself as a 40°F to 50°F drop in much of the region from the evening of December 22 through the following morning. Temperatures plummeted to as low as –5°F. In many places, this rapid drop was accompanied by blustery winds and sustained temperatures below 15°F for at least 32 hours. Additionally, temperatures in many areas didn’t rise above 32°F for more than 80 hours.
This cocktail of winter weather resulted in freeze damage in the form of ice formation within plants, which irrevocably fractured cell walls. Additionally, the rapid temperature drop meant that plants were less able to implement internal defense measures to tolerate low-temperature stress. Wind also contributed to the injury by desiccating (think freeze-drying) evergreen plants.
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We’re back in New Zealand today to see more of Jill Hammond’s beautiful garden. She has spent the last 28 years transforming a 7.5-hectare (18.5-acre) piece of land in rural Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. When she and her husband moved in, it was a completely bare piece of land, so she’s created this entire garden from nothing.
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