Should gardeners be concerned about the warm winter?

February 11, 2012 at 8:01 AM Leave a comment

Should gardeners be concerned about the warm winter?

  • In winter pay attention to evergreens, especially those planted in containers, to make sure they are getting sufficient water.
In winter pay attention to evergreens, especially those planted in containers,… (Robin Carlson/ Chicago Botanic Garden photo)
January 12, 2012|By Tim Johnson, Special to Tribune Newspapers

Q: This week the Sunday staff sent a question to Tim Johnson: Although snow and more typical temperatures have arrived, will our plants be OK after all the unusually warm weather this winter?

A: From a gardening perspective, it seems as if there is little normal weather any more in Chicagoland.

This winter has been unusually mild with an extended period of warm temperatures and very little snow. And now, snow and freezing temperatures have finally arrived.

You may have seen some buds swelling in the garden or bulb foliage peeking up. Flower buds on vernal witch hazels are starting to swell at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

But in general, there really isn’t anything special for you to do to help your plants. It is difficult to predict whether there will be any serious adverse effects because of the recent warm spell, but personally I have no concerns about any plants in my home garden. Should mild temperatures return, enjoy and take advantage of them to work comfortably outside. If you did not do so in the fall, it’s a good time to spread mulch around your trees, shrubs and perennials.

Any bulb foliage peeking up now will likely be touched by frost from the low temperatures. This may turn the edges of the leaves brown and dry, but it will have no lasting effect on the plant and will not stop it from flowering.

Native plants are likely to fare best, since they are well adapted to the temperature extremes of the Midwest.

Continue your basic garden maintenance practices by paying special attention to any evergreens planted in containers. They continue losing water through their leaves in winter, especially during warm and dry periods, and will perform better if you water them as needed. Keep monitoring for animal damage in the landscape. You can install fencing to deter animals or you can spray animal repellents when temperatures are over 40 degrees.

Watch throughout the winter for newly installed perennials or ground covers whose root balls have popped up because of sudden changes in soil temperature — so-called frost heaving. When the ground is not frozen, gently push the plant back level with the surrounding soil. Then mulch around the crown of the plant to insulate and keep the soil temperature steady.

I am hoping for a good covering of snow, which will also provide some insulation, before any serious cold settles in. Snow itself will not harm plants unless a heavy snow builds up on trees and shrubs and breaks branches. It is a good idea to brush snow off evergreens during a storm if you observe branches becoming weighed down. But it is best to leave the plants alone if the snow has frozen on; shaking frozen branches may break them.

Tim Johnson is director of horticulture for the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe ( Send questions to: Gardening Q&A, Sunday, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611-4041; e-mail to


Entry filed under: Green Information.

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