What To Do About Frost Heave Plants – Gloom or Bloom?

Viburnum-WhitesPeople ask this question all the time to Master Gardeners at the Cooperative Extension. As a phone call representative, I fielded this question every year.

Now is the time when gardeners in our area are starting to uncover plants with their crown above the soil surface. Today, at noon it is 33°F, with the real feel at 26°F, and it was a bit nippy. We had freezing rain overnight and that is not so good for any landscape. So far, little is in bloom in Western New York this windy, cold March. The images later in the post show the garden now. In another month, the garden will look like above and below.

Viburnum placatum

Viburnum in Flower

In the garden, certain plants are quickly damaged by frost heave. In our area, lavender is highly susceptible as an example, and I have a tender variety that may have been lost. Gardeners are not yet ready to work the soil and should refrain from doing so.

It is always best to prepare before winter, yet mild winters with little snow cover get gardeners a bit too confident that spring will come sooner than expected. Even a few bulbs breaking ground get hopes up.

Johnny-Jump-Ups

I prepare most years by not “preparing”. Nature just does its thing with falling leaves. In March, the ground is still frozen so not much can be done but to cover the roots as best one can with mulch or a good layer of compost.

Spring-Front-Garden

Perennials in my garden are left to wither and die naturally in fall, with stems trapping falling leaves to keep plants warmer in winter. It is much harder for cleanup in spring for those early bloomers, but worth it for less plants heaving and allowing more tender plants to make it through winter. Leaves are the mulch along with some bark chips I acquire.

The alternate freeze/thaw creates pressure in the soil which lifts up plants, exposing the roots to freezing and drying. Plants that have not fully established a good root system are most vulnerable as are shallow rooted perennials.

Coneflower

I know garden bloggers always want to see those first blooms, like the crocus and snowdrops, but also want the early bloomers like the tulips or Forget-Me-Nots. Here all we have is Helleborus, snowdrops, crocus and hyacinth so far, but daffodils and myosotis are not far behind in my micro-climate beds. You can see how far along the myosotis is below next to the warming  masonry, but frost and cold wind does tinge the earliest leaves in this raised bed.

Myosotis

Myosotis

Myosotis

In early spring, it is better to cover the crowns with extra mulch. Mulch helps greatly to keep roots from drying out. After the soil warms and is workable, then reset the plant. If you rework the plant too early, frozen stems and roots can be easily damaged.  Sometimes the plants will settle back into the ground without help or you can lightly tamp them to firm up the soil around them and reset the plants for better soil contact.

Iris-and-Fern

If the plants are really pushed up, tent the plant with evergreen boughs and/or wood chips to keep roots moist, away from rodents and the plant free of wind damage.  Don’t work the soil if it’s saturated at this time of year, likely, it is still frozen below. The fickle weather of early spring in the Northeast always has a late winter surprise, even in spring.

Rear-Garden

Microclimates

I often mention my garden has microclimates which enable flowers to bloom ahead of schedule in our area, in addition to having plants from a warmer climate zone weather our colder winters.

Microclimates can be both natural or manmade. A rocky outcrop that gets all day sun is nature’s way. I use a lot of stone or modular pavers in my garden to create microclimates. The boxwood also keeps this bed out of the strong winter winds as does the fence that surrounds the garden. Good garden soil, heavy in compost aides as well. The bed is in early summer bloom above too. Its best showing is in spring with the iris and Allium which transitions into a bed of lilies and gladioli.

Allium-Bed

Nothing stops the crocus and hyacinths. Even a few tarnished leaves and they keep on blooming even after our snow a few days ago. One sunny day and they are happy.

PurpleCrocus

Front-Garden-Late-Spring

Stone absorbs heat, moderates the soil temperature, keeps the soil moist, and they provide shade for tender roots. They also help regulate and maintain a more even soil temperature in winter, lessening heaving. Plants will start coming up a month earlier in my garden beds that are surrounded by stone. Don’t underestimate the value of stone. Take a look in nature where there is an abundance of stone. I bet you see some early risers.

The fern below is planted next to the paved patio. It is one not likely to survive our winters, yet it did. It looks just like that now, minus the rabbit.

Fern-Heuchera

Happy, chilly Easter all.

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About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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33 Responses to What To Do About Frost Heave Plants – Gloom or Bloom?

  1. Good tips. I can’t wait for my daffodils and hyacinths to open!

  2. germac4 says:

    Thanks I enjoyed reading your post, we live in a frosty area (in Australia) and I’m going to take notice of your tips as we plant for spring.

  3. swo8 says:

    After the weather we are getting, your garden is a breath of fresh air. I can’t wait for spring to really set in. Thanks for the photos of your lovely garden, Donna and thank you for the tips.
    Leslie

    • I know the weather has been crazy. Up and down. This morning was really chilly, but the forecast say some warmer weather this coming week. I am looking forward to getting the leaves picked up and dead plants cut back.

      • swo8 says:

        Me too. I only do a little clean up in the fall so there is much to do in the Spring. Happy Easter Donna.
        Leslie

  4. alesiablogs says:

    The garden pics are pretty . I never heard of microclimates!

  5. bren0404 says:

    Hi, terrific post, good advice for this time of year. Your climate sounds similar to ours in Saskatchewan now.

  6. Good advice regardless where one lives. March can be unpredictable in the South too. We can get a killing frost late in the spring season which puts a damper on the early bloomers. This year has been very mild and many flowers have already finished blooming. Happy Easter Donna!

    • Happy Easter Karin. Thank you. We have had a mild winter with little snow cover, but did not get the high temperatures as we did in 2012, which was really warm in January. We had lows in the teens, but not sustained for long.

  7. Your garden is a feast for eyes, Donna! 🙂 [love the bunnies!]

  8. Beautiful colours – and I especially like the hellebores and the rabbits! Very Eastery.
    Best wishes 🙂

  9. bittster says:

    I recognize your photo of a frost-heave plant… looks like a few of my unmulched chrysanthemums which have likely died as a result 🙂
    Oh well, more room for new things!
    Love the photo of the hellebore glowing in a ray of sunshine, sure puts me in the Easter mood. Ours is forecast to be warm, hope yours turns out that way as well. Happy Easter!

    • This was a bad year for heaving. New installations were most vulnerable. Our Easter will be nice, sunny and 46°. Happy Easter, Frank. The Hellebores were really out early this year. Already they flowers are fading.

  10. perfect pics – happy easter!

  11. My approach is similar. I let the leaf litter stay on the ground until spring is well-established. If I see frost heaved plants, I usually just smush them back into the ground with my foot.

  12. I agree: Stone makes a huge difference! As does proximity to a warm structure (house, etc.) Your gardens are so beautiful. I really like your Boxwood-enclosed garden. 🙂

    • Thanks, Beth. My foundation is stone, but I keep plants away from it for rain, ice (lots of damage to plants with plants at the drip edge) and a path for maintenance/access (both garden and home maintainence). Also the limestone leaching changes the pH. In design, I always keep beds away from the house. The homes main benefit is with wind. It also aides in shading out certain areas for shade gardening with trees strategically placed.

  13. Indie says:

    Good tips! I then wonder when I should clean up the garden for spring, but I am still resisting with all these fluctuations in temperature still going on. To get my fix of blooms in spring I always plant the earliest varieties of bulbs that I can find. I have quite a few daffodils up, especially by the sidewalk. The pavement soaks in that heat nicely, and this winter we’ve had much less snow to be plowed and piled up on the hellstrips.

    • Thanks, Indie. With the weather fluxuations, I wonder the same. Today is bright and sunny, but the ground is far too cold and wet. I also have very early bulbs. It is more to feed bumblebees as I will have a post on that coming up, but also because our area warms up rapidly and bulbs fade quickly. Many Hell strip gardens in our area get an early start too.

  14. A.M.B. says:

    “[M]ild winters with little snow cover get gardeners a bit too confident that spring will come sooner than expected. Even a few bulbs breaking ground get hopes up.”

    So, so true. I am relatively new to gardening, and I found myself becoming overly confident when the daffodils and hyacinths broke the surface in December/January this year. I did a layer of compost over the beds, but I really wasn’t sure of what I was doing (whether it was enough, etc). This post has a lot of great information in it. Thank you!

    • Thank you. Your weather is much nicer in spring than we get here. Some years it is winter right into summer. I am sure you did fine. You planted lots of bulbs and they are blooming wonderfully.

  15. debsgarden says:

    Happy Easter! Your images of spring are outstanding and a real inspiration. It is worth it all in the end, isn’t it?

  16. It is an early spring for us….lots of bulbs blooming including daffs now. But we are due for a couple more cold days next week. I am always cautious here as we can get snow up to mid-May. Another reason that I love snow is that it helps keep the plants protected. The lack this year has been an issue for plants but keeping the garden less cleaned and leaves laying on beds helps.

    Hope you had a wonderful Easter.

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