What to do When Plants Wake up Too Early in the Winter

When there is roller coaster weather over January, it is normal to see plants coming to life earlier than normal. Trees and shrubs that normally stay dormant until late winter and into March or April depending on location, may begin to wake up during the last month of winter. While some swelling of buds is normal, seeing them swell and open is something else entirely. Here’s what you need know if your shrubs and trees are waking too early in the season.

There are many species of plants that have adapted to crazy weather already. While some leafing out from the terminal buds on the tips of branches may result in freeze damage when winter inevitably sets back in for a week or two, the plant is prepared. You may see the same kind of bud further down each stem that the plant has ready, in the event something like this happens. While the plant rarely gets to use these buds during normal years where winter cold is consistent, it’s ready for when winter tosses in a speed bump. The leafed-out tip may suffer damage, but the reserve of buds behind it will take over when the season is right. To lessen the appearance of damage in the spring, simply prune away the damaged terminal buds.

In some areas where spring brings its yearly moisture event, plants native to that area have adapted accordingly. In these areas such as in the desert, plants wake when heavy rains begin and quickly put on growth to take full advantage of the sudden deluge of rain. They bud out and send out new root growth very fast. If there is no moisture present due to drier winter weather when the plant is sending out root growth, you will see the damage later on. It’s a good idea to water these types of plants in warmer areas, even when they break dormancy too early. Root damage is far worse than stem tip and bud damage. Watering during the warm spell can help quell root damage.

You may also notice spring bulbs emerging too early. To slow emergence, cover with a shade cloth or polypropylene sheet. If you have your bulbs in containers, simply place the containers in a shaded spot, or cold shed for the rest of the season where they are out of the sun and daytime warming temps until the warm days pass and winter sets back in. If they’re in the ground and have emerged over a few inches, cover them with a generous layer of mulch to protect the new growth the best you can from a deep, long freeze.

In the end, many trees and shrubs will simply undergo their spring show, like ornamental cherries and pears earlier than normal. And, they won’t put on another show in the spring when they normally do. And while this might seem like a loss, enjoy blooms as they happen.  An occasional wrench in the cogs of the normal timing of the circle of life can often be a positive thing.