Ask a Master Gardener: Has cold weather killed my rhododendrons?

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 26, 2013 

MASTER GARDENERS

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Question: My rhododendrons look like the cold weather has killed them. Could this be true?

Answer: Not likely. Though I'm not a big fan of rhododendrons (if they were people I'd call them arrogant), during a recent walk through a park, I saw dozens of these huge plants, and I can see why many people would think they'd been killed by the cold.

But what you're seeing is the rhody armature: They're doing what they need to do to survive cold temperatures. Those curled leaves, all drooping downwards, aren't victims; they're survivors. During intense cold periods, the curling of the leaves serves two purposes. First, the drooping shades the surface of the leaf during cold, so that cold weather photosynthesis can occur. This process is 50 percent more effective when the leaves are drooping, rather than held flat. Second, curled leaves thaw more gradually than flat leaves. Freeze damage is minimized when leaves thaw slowly.

What is really remarkable is to see how the leaves return to their more normal selves. If we should happen to have a string of milder days this winter, you can see it happen. Then you'll know for sure that the cold weather hasn't killed your plant.

Q: What can I do with my spent Christmas tree?

A: A few things come to mind. How about cutting it up, using the branches as mulch under evergreens? Really sturdy limbs can be cleaned up and used as stakes come spring.

But my favorite use of the old Christmas tree is as a treat for my birds. The tree is a welcome feeder for birds that are braving the cold and wet. Prop the tree up (make sure it is secure) and load it with bird treats. Slather pine cones with peanut butter and roll them in bird seed. Hang pieces of suet. Feed stores have plenty of bird treats. It's fun for the entire family, and you can feel good helping out our feathered friends.

Q: What, realistically, can gardeners do during the winter months?

A: First of all, I guess it depends on your fortitude. Winter work isn't always a romp in the park, though there are days when it's invigorating to work outside. When temperatures fall in the 20s or teens, you'll be more effective inside, perusing seed catalogues and thumbing through the many gorgeous gardening books available from the library or bookstore. Even better, turn on the TV and watch Joe Lamp'l's excellent gardening program on PBS. It covers a wide range of topics. Shows are filmed all over the country, and several have been filmed in the Pacific Northwest.

Still, there will be those relatively mild days, so if cabin fever is on the verge of setting in, by all means get up and into your garden. You might do a walk-through, looking for any obvious problems such as raised bed wood that needs to be replaced or wind-damaged limbs that need to be cut. Maybe a path's gravel needs to be augmented or a few bricks need leveling. And believe it or not, weeds haven't taken the winter off, and any you find you need to pull. Yank them now, when the soil is moist, and you'll be ahead of the game in the spring.

In spite of the weather, as long as it isn't freezing, it's a good time to plant trees and shrubs. It will save you time in the busy spring gardening season.

Be careful outside, however, when working in the winter. Avoid walking on beds, as you'll compact the moist soil. And go back inside before you're frozen solid. There will be plenty more days to garden.

One hint I can give is how to keep your hands warm during winter forays into the garden. Wear two pairs of gloves: the first pair a disposable plastic, and the second your winter gardening gloves. The combination will keep your hands toasty.

With luck we'll get many days this winter that will allow us gardeners outside doing what we like best!

ABOUT THIS COLUMN

Ask a Master Gardener will appear in The Bellingham Herald monthly through the winter. If you have a gardening question you'd like answered in the column, please email it to newsroom@bellinghamherald.com.

Master Gardener Kathleen Bander is a resident of Bellingham and life-long gardener. For more information on Whatcom County Master Gardeners, go to whatcom.wsu.edu/ch/mg.

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