My Poor Rhododendron! Answering Your Gardening Questions After A Long, Rough Winter

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The unusually cold and long winter left a number of plants unable to bloom again. (Weefz/Flickr)
The unusually cold and long winter left a number of plants unable to bloom again. (Weefz/Flickr)

A month or so ago, when it finally began to feel like spring in New England, many Bostonians inspected their backyard gardens and were shocked by the damage. Cracked and dying trees. Decimated shrubbery. Plants clinging to life and struggling to bounce back.

Many gardens were brutalized by this year's unusually rough winter, and that has lots of people wondering what they can nurse back to life and what needs to be ripped out of the ground. And considering that it was 40 degrees in Boston Thursday morning — just a few days before the start of June — some gardeners are questioning whether it's safe to be doing new planting yet.

WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer speaks with a pair of gardening pros about winter's toll on New England's greenery and gets advice for worried gardeners.


David Epstein, WBUR's meteorologist. Columnist for the Portland Press-Herald and The Boston Globe. Avid gardener and founder of, an online video website for homeowner-gardeners and landscape professionals. Author of "Gardens of New England." He tweets at @growingwisdom.

Peter Mezitt, president of Weston Nurseries. He tweets at @Petermpjm. The company tweets at @WestonNurseries.

Answering Your Gardening Questions

Radio Boston host Sacha Pfeiffer: Is a crack in a trunk typically related to a cold winter?

  • "Yeah, the freezing and thawing, definitely. But it's not usually fatal. You can have some bark splitting due to that freezing/thawing, especially when it gets real cold and real warm close in time."

Caller Laurie from Billerica: One of my 15-year-old evergreen bushes is very brown in the front. I'm not sure if it's going to make it, or if should I ride it out and see if it comes back.

  • "Depending on the type of evergreen, it can be pruned and it will branch out from the stems that are older. Some do that better than others but that's the basic advice, especially for newly planted ones. This sounds like it wasn't, but you would want to prune it back and watch it, hopefully, fill in more densely beyond where you pruned. You could also help it along with a little bit of well-balanced fertilizer and a healthy dose of water. Another thing to keep in mind is if plants were put in late last year and they weren't watered in, they took a hit even more so. It's important to water in very late in the year."

Caller Joe from Hamilton: I have a grassy yard, but it's very wet and muddy and mossy. It gets a good amount of sun, but every spring it's very, very wet. Do you have any advice for either replanting new grass, or something else I should do?

  • "Moss is going to really thrive in two things: compacted soil, as well as acidic soil. So the caller may have a lawn that has become compacted due to the water. One thing you could try is, as it dries out, to aerate it a little bit and try to work in a little bit of sand down there, and that can help to give it a little more aeration in those holes. That would be a pretty big project. The other choice would be to take up the grass and put in plants that like wet soil."

Caller Larry from North Attleboro: I planted some Canadian hemlocks about three years ago and this spring one of them turned brown and all the needles fell off. I tried a systemic spray but ended up cutting it down. Any idea what happened and how can I prevent the same thing from happening to the others?

  • "It could be a number of things. It could be that it wasn't planted properly to begin with. You may have ruled that out already. But sometimes, three years later, when a plant is planted too deep, it's taking a toll on the roots. They can suffocate, they can be too wet, they can be too dry because the water's not getting down deep enough. Deer damage can cause that [but it] doesn't sound like that was the case with you, either. [Another possible culprit is] Woolly adelgid. That can take about a three-year period. If it contacted that in the beginning, it takes about three years to wipe out a hemlock. Woolly adelgid is an insect that's actually alive in February and you see tiny white masses on the underside of the needle. So with hemlocks specifically that's what you need to look out for."

Caller Mary Ann from Middleboro: I've had a flowering plum tree for several years. This spring, it flowered and produced leaves and then, all of a sudden, the leaves just dropped off, and now I'm left with bare branches. What happened?

  • "There's a problem with winter moths. They're the green caterpillars that have been eating a lot of our deciduous trees and they'll continue to eat for about another seven to 14 days here. It could have been that the winter moth defoliated it. It loves things like cherries and apple and maples and some of the azaleas. Some of these plants will flush out a second growth of new leaves, so you want to definitely water it."


The New York Times: Slow Exit Of The Midwest’s Winter Buries Gardens In A Deep Freeze

  • "The freakishly cold Midwestern winter of 2014 has given way to the frustrated Midwestern gardener. The stubbornly cool spring, on the heels of a bone-chilling winter, has produced the most dismal start to the season in decades, nursery owners say."

The Boston Globe: What To Do When Tomato Plants Stop Growing

  • "Tomatoes are tropical plants and need warm soil to grow. Plant them outside the first week of June. Meanwhile, bring them indoors at night. To speed them up you can provide bottom heat for the roots by putting them on top of the refrigerator at night or on a heating pad set on low and wrapped in a towel."

What are your gardening woes? Did the winter leave you and your plants heartbroken? Let us know!

This segment aired on May 29, 2014.

Headshot of Sacha Pfeiffer

Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



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