Gardening: Sunny days has green peeking through

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News
Tuff Stuff Ah-Ha is a lace-cap hydrangea with pale blue double flowers that look like starbursts at the tops of stems up to 3 feet tall. Plant it in sun to part shade.

This was a tough winter on gardeners here in southeast Michigan.  In the fall, the temperatures plummeted from a balmy 70 degrees one day to freezing the next -- and the fall season as we know it was over early. Our beloved Indian Summer never arrived. Like a lot of gardeners, I spent the long, cold winter worrying about the effects of sudden drastic temperature drop on the plants, shrubs and trees in our gardens and landscapes. 

To make matters worse, Mother Nature played games by throwing in an occasional unseasonably warm day several times during the winter season. Some shrubs, such as hydrangeas, will take advantage of the warmth and quickly begin to break dormancy, making them more vulnerable to winter kill. 

For many of us, garden cleanup last fall was interrupted by the sudden arrival of winter and the withered foliage remained intact on many plants during the winter. 

To add to the anxiety of those of us who spend our winters here in Michigan, spring has been late in arriving. On the few sunny days we experienced in early April, I walked the garden looking for any signs of life.  Nothing. Praying the garden was still sleeping but fearing the wonky weather had taken its toll, I waited and watched. And suddenly, a couple of weeks ago the sun came out, the weather warmed and the plants popped. 

To my delight, most everything survived in the garden. Though the cone flowers are slow to emerge, they’re definitely leafing out. The Pulmonaria are up and blooming and my new editions to the penstemon collection are producing beautiful burgundy-colored leaves. Having to leave the foliage intact last fall may have been a blessing as we are now told the dead plant material is Mother Nature’ s way of providing winter protection,  and heaven knows they needed it this year.   

Winter kill on evergreen trees and shrubs, known scientifically as an abiotic disorder, often corrects itself if it’s not too severe.  Evergreens that suffer burn will recover if the latent buds are still intact. It's best to be patient and keep an eye on them, making sure to keep them watered if it doesn’t rain.  Dousing them with chemical fertilizers may do more harm then good.  High nitrogen fertilizers stimulate lush new growth that is vulnerable to disease and also attracts insects.

However, we fertilize our roses and hydrangeas after pruning with a good quality organic fertilizer, such as Espoma Rose Tone and Holly Tone, according to package directions. 

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at