After taking care of that new plant or bush all spring and summer, along comes fall. It seems like instantly the leaves start to turn brown, shrivel up and fall off. That is not the plant dying, but merely going to sleep for the cold months of winter ahead. These plants are deciduous and they lose their leaves every year. They are going into dormancy, a period of rest for the plant. It depends on the variety of plant, but this usually takes place when the temperatures start getting below freezing, (32 degrees), for several hours at a time. Roots can still grow until the ground freezes. It is easier for the plant to take care of itself without all the leaves being exposed to the cold and drying winds of winter. Plants can’t supply the moisture needed for the leaves. Energy that was gathered through the leaves during summer and stored in the roots will now keep the plant alive during winter. When the temperature starts to rise in the spring, new buds start to grow and new growth begins again.
Dormancy is the perfect time for pruning the plant also. Branches can be seen better since there are no leaves blocking the view. New growth from that year can be cut back to a shorter length. This will cause the plant to send out more branches from where you make the pruning cut when it starts growing in the spring. Growth that is not pruned will continue to grow next year becoming long and leggy and will not create a bushy plant.
Plants and shrubs can be transplanted more safely during dormancy. If some root damage occurs, it is less harmful to the plant. When they wake up they start growing as if nothing has happened.
Hollies, rhododendrons, some azaleas, junipers, arborvitaes, pieris, as well as spruces, are evergreen shrubs. They keep their leaves all winter. They don’t usually keep their nice summer green, but they hang on to their foliage. Some change to a purple-green or lighter green. The leaves or needles are usually thicker and stiffer than leaves of deciduous plants that drop their leaves. That helps them hold more moisture during winter.
Unfortunately, sometimes we have a bad winter that is colder than normal and comes with strong winds that dry out those thick leaves. Last winter was a prime example. It was much colder than normal for long periods of time. We had strong winds that seemed like they blew for days. Many plants and shrubs just didn’t have what it took to survive. Even though they were supposed to survive our area’s winters. Instead of being greeted with new green growth in the spring, dark brown leaves were there instead. Many were completely dead, while others only had some dead branches and could be pruned. Many of the survivors sent up new growth eventually.
While we can’t do anything about the cold temperatures, we can help protect the sensitive plants. Make sure that the plants get plenty of water during fall because they can’t get water from the ground once it freezes to replenish water lost to the drying winds. A layer of mulch around the base of the plant helps to insulate the root area and keep in moisture also. 2 to 4 inches is plenty of mulch. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing when it comes to mulch. Critters like voles and mice will like a deep mulch layer for a warm winter home. And while they are nestled in the deep mulch, they will help themselves to the tender bark of your shrubs. They can eat around the trunk, girdling the shrub and it can die as a result. So keep it shallow and a little bit away from the base.
Fencing or some other kind of wind breaking material can be placed around the shrubs to protect them from the hard, dry winds of winter. Some even wrap burlap around shrubs to protect them from the winds and heavy snowfall that can do severe damage. Specially constructed wood covers can be placed over them also. Just make sure you remove any protection when spring temperatures start to rise.