Published on 01/30/14

Don't prune ice-covered ornamental plants until spring

By Keith Mickler

A hard freeze sure can make landscapes look bad. The best advice for now is the “wait and see approach.” Give the plants time to recover, oh let’s say, until spring. No good will be done from pruning away what you think is dead; it may still be alive.

First, make sure you are taking care of your landscape plants by examining a few critical needs starting with soil moisture.

Water Needs

Plants need water, and these water needs should be checked after a freeze. On a sunny day after the freeze, the foliage could be transpiring (losing water vapor) while the water in the soil is frozen. Apply water to thaw the soil and provide available water to your beloved plants.

Don’t overdo the water. Apply no more than 1 inch of water to landscape plants. To get that inch of water, apply just a little over a half gallon of water for every square foot of area underneath a plant out to the edge of foliage, or drip line.

For example, an azalea measures that measures 3 feet by 4 feet will cover 12 square feet, Gardeners should apply 6.5 to 7 gallons of water evenly over those 12 square feet.

Water also gives off heat that can protect plants, especially borderline sensitive plants, from freezing. Damp soil retains heat better than dry soil, protecting roots and warming the air near the soil.


Severe pruning should be delayed until new growth appears in the spring. Waiting ensures live wood is not removed. Put those loppers, shears and chain saws away for now.

If a high level of maintenance is desired, dead, unsightly leaves can be removed after a freeze as soon as they turn brown. You can bet any dead leaves on the plants in my landscape will be there a while.

Here’s another reason not to prune: Even if plants in your garden are blackened and wilted, new growth could still be possible from below the affected area. Even though new growth and young branch tips may be damaged or even dead, older wood might be injury free.

Pruning away dead wood can expose buds, which may still be alive, to harsh elements. Another hard freeze just might wipe out any survivors.

So keep the cutting utensils in the garage and let the dead portions of your plants protect what’s below. It may take until mid-spring before we see any new growth, but be patient and don’t pick up the pruners.

For more information on caring for landscape plants after freezing weather, see the University of Georgia Extension publication “Winter Protection of Ornamental Plants” at

Keith Mickler is the University of Georgia Extension coordinator in Floyd County.

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