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Deadliest garden: The worst winter my garden has ever seen

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I’m ready to go on record. I think this may have been the most deadly winter my garden has ever seen. I’ve been patient and following all my steps for what you should do when you think a plant has died, but most things are growing by now and those that aren’t are probably doomed.

I’m not the only one. I have talked to scores of gardeners who report similarly long lists of garden casualties. 

Winter wasn’t too hard on people here. And that’s the problem: winters that are good for people are often bad for plants. We had very little snow and what we had didn’t come until late. There were several severe up and down cycles for the temperature, so what little snow we did get often melted and then we’d get hit by a cold snap.

But I think there might have been more at play. C.L. Fornari hypothesized that over on the East Coast a warm fall that rapidly swung into bitter cold was responsible for gardeners reporting a great deal of plant losses. I think we had similar weather to this. In any case, it certainly didn’t help the cause. 

This is what is currently on my DOA or ICU list:

phenomenal lavender with bordeaux supertunia
The ‘Phenomenal’ lavender looked so nice with Supertunia Bordeaux last year.
Dead lavender
Now the lavender looks like this. I’ve left it in hoping it was just slow, but alas, I believe it is well and truly dead.

  • 18 gorgeous ‘Phenomenal’ lavender plants. I lined the path with these last year and it was everything I wanted for that spot. I have overwintered this plant here before so I know it is certainly possible. And you might call me crazy, but I’m going to try again.
    At Last rose
    ‘At Last’ rose will be sorely missed in my garden and it will be replaced at some point.
  • ‘At Last’ rose. This one is a heart breaker because this is such a gorgeous plant. I had received three of these as trial samples from Proven Winners three years ago. They were small as trial plants usually are—4-inch pots—but that didn’t seem to phase them. One was planted a little too close to a grass that I didn’t realize was shading it until it was too late, but the other two flourished. Both had completely dead canes, which I’ve cut back but there is no sign of regrowth. I will replace this plant sometime, but the budget for this year is blown and then some.
New growth on Paprika rose
Oso Easy Paprika died to the ground but is sending up lots of new, healthy growth.
  • Oso Easy Italian Ice rose. This is another Proven Winners rose that appears to have not faired well. Same with Mango Salsa. Others, including Oso Easy Peachy Cream, Oso Easy Honey Bun, Oso Easy Paprika, Oso Easy Urban Legend and Oso Happy Smoothie are stalwarts who weathered the storm. Some had complete cane dieback but they have all resprouted and will grow quickly. 
  • More roses! I lost one of the two ‘Windermere’ roses I was growing in containers, but I take all the blame. I didn’t give them enough water over the winter. One of the six ‘Alnwick’ roses in the circle garden is a bit stunted but it has growth and I have faith it will catch up with the others. 
  • Although it’s not dead … yet, one of the five Tiny Tuff Stuff hydrangeas that I had planted in the patio garden had very little new growth. If it were planted on its own I would have nursed it back to health, but since it was in a grouping and sort of ruining the vibe, I moved it to another area and replaced it. 
Viburnum 'Summer Snowflake'
‘Summer Snowflake’ is being oddly slow to leaf out but some branches show new leaves and even flower buds so I’m just crossing my fingers that it’s being a little stubborn.
  • Viburnum plicatum tomentosum ‘Summer Snowflake’ is oddly slow to leaf out, although some branches have. I’m sitting tight and crossing my fingers on this one.
  • Many, many perennials in a new area of the garden from last year. Again, I’m taking the blame. I probably didn’t concentrate on getting them well established. I lost three Geum triflorum (out of five), two grasses and some achillea. 

Update on June 5, 2018: Sadly the list continues to grow. The ‘Summer Snowflake’ viburnum is looking highly suspicious and I’m beginning to lose hope that it will rally. I also lost a mature Deutzia Yuki Cherry Blossom, right next to one that is blooming its head off. And perhaps most concerning is the ‘Ann’ magnolia, whose flower buds have remained the same size for well over a month now with no change. This is a well-established tree that has had no signs of stress at all before. 

I’m certain there are many more plants that bit the dust that I just haven’t found yet. A clematis in the circle garden doesn’t seem to be doing anything and worst of all I can’t even find a label so I’m not sure how the gravestone should read. 

I fear that winters like this (and last year, which wasn’t great plant-wise either) will become the norm. Gardeners will probably learn to adapt even if the plants don’t. Either that or we’ll keep the plant business going strong. 

31 Responses

  1. I am zone 5 NYS. I use “Omaha” meat packing Styrofoam containers as a ” hat” over my perennials to protect plants. Large surface area surrounding plant is protected with actual root ball coverage. Poke holes in.inverted bottoms in the 4sides. White color reflects UV and heat . and with aeration from holes the plants get a buffer from outside environment. I think system operates like a Styrofoam greenhouse. People throw these away as garbage and I find various sizes I need for free.

  2. So sorry to hear of all your beloved plants that did not make it especially the Rose’s. I lost several of my mine myself plus Lambs Ear, daisy mums, iris that are not blooming and have mushy rotted feet and must get dug out, lungwort, cranesbill geraniums that are either gone or really small and the list goes on… I’ve read so many gardeners have lost lavender plants and I was lucky to only lose one. Ive always put pine boughs over them using branches cut off of my Christmas tree so the January thaw doesn’t do damage. I dont know if this will work in the future given what the meteorologists have discribed our winter/spring weather as Whiplash conditions and as you said just might become the norm. But being the eternal optimist I’ve replaced my dead lavender with more and where the Rose’s were I’ve planted in a whole new flower bed minis new roses because after that big exstravaga my wallet was depleted!

  3. I’ve noticed no so much dead plants in my zone 5, IL garden, but plants not flowering as usual. Prime example for me is my tree peonies – their flowers over all were not as plentiful or even flowering as high on the plant as usual – more in the middle to low areas. Makes me think of how Forsythia will flower only low on the plant when the cold temps damage the flower buds during winter. My raspberries also seem to be shorter than normal this year, but maybe they will catch up. On the flip side, my Styrex japonica (Japanese Snowbell) is flowering the best I have seen in a long time. You just never know what the gardening season will bring. I also consider that plant death opens up the possibilities for new plants… as gardeners we tend to cram them in together, so maybe a little space is a good thing. Happy Gardening!

  4. I’m in northeast CT, Zone 6. We likewise had a horrible winter – little snow, bitter cold spells (starting unusually in early December), late nor’easters. I likewise lost my one lone lavender plant, which I loved. It has one stem on it. My roses, butterfly bushes and hydrangeas all basically died to the ground. I’m about done with roses, except my beloved fairies and Lady Elsie May. Apparently I can’t grow David Austins or Knockouts, and some own-root roses.

    I look back to when I started gardening seriously, 2008, through 2013 or so and it looks like a completely different garden. Everything’s so lush and full. Oh well. Mother Nature always bats last.

  5. I am sorry to hear about so many losses. I am not surprised though. Our winter was terrifying garden-wise. It was the most severe we have had in some years. I think the worse thing was we went through a horrid summer drought just before winter slammed us.
    I have never been able to grow lavender. I have tried several varieties and all have failed. I haven’t figured out why.
    I thought I lost a climbing rose. The only one that ever grew up over a trellis for me. I decided that I would replace it with a more fragrant one right after we returned from a week long visit. When I walked into the garden there stood one stem about 3’tall with a bud on it. I don’t know if I have the heart to tear it out now. Maybe it read my mind and decided it should get busy and grow.

    1. Lisa, I have found that threatening plants with banishment can be an effective way to get them to improve their performance.

  6. The same in the UK. I have two hydrangeas that are taking a very long time to leaf out, just a couple of tiny sprouts per plant. I’m waiting and hoping but they may well be gonners. It’s so variable though. For most plants the late but warmer Spring has brought them on in leaps and bounds. I may well see the best year yet for roses.

  7. I’m so sad to hear about your Phenomenal Lavender! I discovered it 2 years ago and it’s been foolproof for me (Rhode Island). The picture of it along your walk is so pretty, I agree that you should replant!

  8. Winter here was colder than it has been. I live in Oklahoma (Zone 7), but it was still not cold enough for long enough to kill off all the bugs and diseases that can overwinter. But, we did get a late really hard freeze that zapped my peonies and hydrangeas. I had one peony that only had a handful of blooms, and the other had huge buds and did not bloom after the freeze hit in spite of me covering it. My Bridal Wreath Spirea did not bloom either. Maybe next year. We seemed to have skipped spring altogether as the heat index is going to hit 107 today. That does not bode well for August here!

  9. My lavender suffered this year as well. I had quite a few losses of new plantings (planted in Fall) that, frankly, surprised me. But this strange winter and the warm-cold/snow-warm-cold/snow cycle we were on this late winter/early spring I think was the downfall of most of the casualties in our garden. What a bizarre year its been so far! I’m a bit anxious for what the rest of the weather will do for us this year!

  10. Gardening has taught me patience, and this year my patience has been sorely tried. But then a plant I thought was a goner shows signs of life and I vow to wait a bit longer. My toadlilies have just started to appear, a hosta poked its head up just yesterday and an epimedium that was a no-show all last year is back. I still have a large area where several things are missing but I’m going to wait – while I contemplate the redesign.

  11. I feel your pain. Here in my Zone 4b gardens, I have quite the long list of losses too. Fortunately lots of those perennials were purchased at local nurseries that guarantee perennials. It’s all part of gardening.

    1. Great point about buying from nurseries that offer guarantees. I keep all my plant receipts in that little cubby built into the driver’s door because I’m afraid I’ll lose them I put them anywhere else. My husband almost threw them away once when we was cleaning my car!

  12. We gardeners are typically an optimistic lot, hence you will replant your lavender. When I was feeling discouraged at the loss of my young climbing hydrangea this spring, I remembered a quote I read in a gardening book (I think Henry Mitchell’s) “They are called perennial, not immortal”. It made me chuckle and realize there is always next year. ?

  13. Here in Saint Paul we had a true winter. Cold and snow…a lot of snow. My gardens suffered several losses. The heartbreakers were the ones that could have survived the cold but not the hungry rabbits. We were safe until the last of the snowfalls that gave them access over the top of the fencing.

  14. It was a rough winter for us here, too, in Houston. I thought I had lost two things, both on the tropical side but one finally popped up about two weeks ago. It’s been warm here for months but apparently it really needed some 90* days to get going. It looks like the only thing that didn’t make it is a Mexican flame vine and it has typically come back after our winters. I’m calling it DOA.

    All of the cycads around the area looked like they were dead until about mid-April when they finally sprung to life. Many people lost zone pushing plants around here on the north side of Houston.

  15. Ooohh nooo, I thought the loss of your lavender was sad until I kept reading and saw that gorgeous rose. We faired slightly better this year, but last year was a killer in our neck of the woods.

  16. I lost so many plants that I had to stop counting. We had the same cycle of late snow, warm, cold, melt, cold — none of which is good for plants. Even a willow I planted 12 years ago died. So sad-making.

  17. Linda…my toad lilies just came up last week in Kansas City, so I think there is still hope in Madison!

  18. I lost both my lavender and rosemary and my always reliable verbena is no where in sight this year. Also lost my lambs ear which I believe drowned and some usually dependable gallardia. I definitely agree with the cooler spring and warmer fall theory someone mentioned. Climate change is here to stay and we gardeners will have to adapt.

  19. A local scientist told me that he thinks what we are going to see here are cooler springs and hotter autumns. Our only days last year in the 90s were in Sept. and this April and early May were very cool. I am still noticing things not coming up that are long time hardy plants like toad lilies and Saruma henryii, a big clumping Ch. ginger. I mean I had major dieback on Russian cyprus. Really hard to know exactly how to go forward. Strangely enough a couple of Z6 things came through fine. I am not touching a couple of spots where irreplaceable plants are and am still hoping for the best.

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