As gardeners, our first instinct after days of snow, ice, and freezing temperatures is to frantically run outside to survey the damage. But as we take stock of our gardens over the next few days, it's important to keep a level head. There's no need to panic, and certainly not to despair! No matter how bad it may seem, all is most certainly not lost. Gardening is an inherently hopeful endeavor, and anyone who's been at it for very long can testify to the resilience of the natural world. It's important to take the long view when it comes to nature's rhythms and its cycles, and whether we like it or not, weather events like the one we just experienced are part of that bigger picture.
Although this winter had previously been off to a mild start, the good news is that this particular bout of snow, ice, and freezing rains came as most plants had already gone dormant, and before they had yet been tempted to break that dormancy. As such, most hardy plants will have fared alright, and the prognosis is good even for those that may look superficially rough at the moment. This is especially true of plants described as semi-evergreen in our climate. Even if they drop most or all of their leaves, this is a natural response to cold stress that they would likely exhibit every year in a colder zone, and we would expect them to push out a flush of new leaves in spring without problem. The most likely plants to have sustained damage are trees and woody shrubs hounded by wind and ice, along with tender perennials and marginally hardy plants (we're looking at you, phormiums) that resent being subjected to sustained temperatures below freezing, especially without any additional cover.
With that said, plants surprise us all the time, and we anticipate being surprised by some plants we might have assumed were goners, even if they take a few seasons to recover! Last year, we didn't have high hopes for our mature pineapple guavas after they suffered substantial damage to their main trunks, which split and cracked under the weight of snow. And what's worse, they completely defoliated — something we'd never seen them do before. They looked like hell for a while, and they didn't flower last growing season, but looking at them now, you wouldn't know they'd been hit hard just a year ago. As with many things in gardening, patience is key. Some plants like hardy fuchsias are habitually late to "wake up" in a good year, and even more so if they die all the way to the ground. Chances are they will sprout again from the ground; it may just take them a while. At worst, any losses are gambles that didn't quite pay off and learning opportunities for the future.
When you venture out into the garden after a winter storm, it's important to keep your wits about you as you begin your inspection. Be aware of the possibility of slick ice, avoid walking too close to precariously fallen trees, and watch out for widowmakers and other damaged limbs that could fall and cause serious harm. Do what you need and feel comfortable doing, but know that there's no shame in leaving big tree cleanup jobs to the professionals.
After snow and freezing rain, resist the urge to shake ice off of trees and shrubs, as their limbs are prone to breakage. Once things have thawed, you can assess the damage, clean up fallen branches, and begin to tackle any smaller pruning jobs you feel comfortable with. Pruning out damaged limbs and leaving a clean cut will not only improve a plant's appearance, but help to prevent further damage and entry points for disease. Aim to cut smaller branches back to just above a growth point or bud that will sprout new growth come spring.
Once temperatures rise above freezing, it's important to remove any frost blankets you may have set out to protect your plants, especially if there's sun in the forecast. Things can quickly heat up under such coverings, causing damage on the opposite end of the spectrum from the kind you were trying to prevent!
Once temperatures have moderated and are forecast to remain above freezing, you can begin to move any potted plants you may have temporarily relocated back to their spots in your garden. If they've been outside, it's unlikely that they will need watering, but if they have been under cover, check to see if they need a drink. A well-hydrated plant is simply more resilient. (The same is true indoors, too. If you moved houseplants away from windows to protect them from the extreme cold, you can move them back once the coast is clear. And because it's likely your heat has been running on full blast and sucking moisture from the air, they'll probably want a bit of water, too!)
After a storm like this one where we saw many mature trees downed across Portland, we know that it can be hard to look where a tree once stood and see anything but a hole. But after giving ourselves a moment to grieve, hopefully we can see these changes — unwanted and unexpected as they may be — as opportunities. Rather than focus on what once was, we can begin to envision what could be. After all, gardening is a relationship with nature, and like any relationship, it changes over time. Where an oak tree falls in a forest, new light can reach the ground, opening up space for an acorn to germinate and a beautiful, grand cycle to continue. And in your garden, the same is true, except you can play a role in picking that tree's successor! A fallen tree might also mean exciting new possibilities to try your hand at growing a few sun-loving plants you hadn't been able to before.
To that end, our team of knowledgeable plant professionals would be happy to assist you in picking out a few new plants — or replacing a beloved specimen you may have lost. And if you find yourself needing a hand navigating a garden that has suddenly changed around you, we offer individually-tailored garden coaching sessions throughout the year to help you wrap your head around a landscape and know where to add or edit elements according to your specific garden conditions, tastes, and goals.
We wish you the best of luck as you assess your garden and begin cleaning up. And remember: Like all of the natural world, the plants in our gardens are resilient, and we are too!