Cut Your Losses — Time to Prune Winter-Damaged Plants

May 29, 2014 | By | Comments (65)
Cut Your losses

This hydrangea will rise again! Photo: Ellen Grooms

Hope springs eternal in the garden. Your shrub or tree should have put out leaves a month ago, yet its stems remain bare. Did it just forget spring is almost over? Did it decide to sleep in? Do plants sometimes skip a year? Nope, nope, and nope. Sorry, but it’s time to cut your losses.

Our first really cold winter in a long time took its toll on many plants. My pampas grass croaked. That’s OK — I hated it. That avocado tree Brian grew from a seed bit the dust too. I don’t care. It was too tall to store in the garage and he refused to take it to his dorm room at Auburn. Would have classed up the joint.

Broadleaf evergreens like gardenia, loropetalum, and creeping fig showed the first obvious damage — brown, toasty foliage. But later, Grumpy noticed numerous deciduous plants that should be leafing out in spring hadn’t.

For example, many French hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla), like the one above owned by faithful reader Ellen Grooms, either was a total mass of naked brown stems or looked dead at the top with only green shoots coming up from the bottom. Grumpy heard similar complaints about crepe myrtles and Japanese maples (especially from peeps in the Upper South and parts north), as well as pomegranate and fig trees.

The Sorry Truth
It is now the end of May. That may be the cusp of spring in Minnesota as folks gather to drink Leinenkugels and watch the ice break on Lake Superior, but in the South it’s almost summer.

Branches leaf out in spring. If they do not leaf out in spring, they are dead. No branch skips a year in leafing out — no matter what you’ve heard from Kathy Lee and Hoda.

So get out the loppers and pruners this weekend and cut off the dead branches. Leave alone any growth coming up from the bottom of a hydrangea — because if your hydrangea happens to be a reblooming type, like ‘Endless Summer,’ ‘Penny Mac,’ ‘All Summer Beauty,’ ‘Dear Delores,’ or ‘Forever & Ever,’ it will still bloom this year. If not, you’ll have to wait until next year for blooms.

As for crepe myrtle, pomegranate, and fig, cut off all dead branches. If a trunk is dead, cut it to the ground. Luckily, these plants all flower and/or fruit on new growth, so unless they’re totally dead, your world won’t come to an end. Cut off the dead from Japanese maples too.

They’ll all grow back quickly to regain their former glory — just in time for next winter’s killing freeze.



  1. Steve Bender


    I would spread a couple of inches of mulch around the base after a hard freeze.

    September 30, 2014 at 10:40 am
  2. Kathy

    I thought I had lost my gardenia to the harsh winter last year (live in MD) and was ready to dig it up and replace it with something else…….until I spotted two small green leaves popping up at its base….how excited I was to see it coming back! Wondering now how best to protect it this winter?

    September 30, 2014 at 4:57 am
  3. Angela Bari

    Thanks Grumpy – love your column. Angela

    July 31, 2014 at 2:56 pm
  4. Steve Bender

    Don’t cut back the stalks until after the foliage yellows.

    July 31, 2014 at 2:31 pm
  5. Angela Bari

    Regarding lilies – after the flowers are spent can I cut down the stalks – when and how far?

    July 24, 2014 at 4:16 pm
  6. Angie Stewart-Lefler

    Yay, you da’ man, grumpy! I love that tree…so glad it’s not a total wash.

    June 12, 2014 at 6:42 pm
  7. Steve Bender


    Here’s what to do. That stump is going to send up lots of sprouts. Select 4-5 of the strongest ones to become the new trunks. They should be well-spaced and growing up and out. Then cut off all the others. Keep doing this all summer and your crepe myrtle will grow back and look normal in a couple of years.

    June 12, 2014 at 2:27 pm
  8. Steve Bender


    Japanese maples are very susceptible to dieback caused by late freezes after they start to wake up from winter. This is what’s happened to your tree. What you need to do is scratch the bark to see if you can find green underneath. If you can’t find green, that branch is dead. Cut back all branches to the topmost point where you can find green. Don’t worry — your tree will look ugly for a while, but it will grow back.

    June 12, 2014 at 2:24 pm
  9. Angie Stewart-Lefler

    I did the scrape test all the way down the trunks of my Crepe Myrtle tree and could not find green. So assuming it did not survive the winter we had this year, I cut the three two-inch diameter trunks back to the ground. I was going to have my husband shovel the rest out to prepare for another tree, when lo and behold, the thing began to sprout from the ground. Sooo…

    June 10, 2014 at 6:06 pm
  10. Shelley

    Can you answer a question for me here in Michigan? Our Japanese Maple appeared totally dead up until a week ago…then, miraculously small growths are appearing from the trunk. The rest of the tree is as dry as tinder. If we trim the dead stuff, we will only have a trunk.

    June 10, 2014 at 4:50 pm
  11. Steve Bender

    You can cut back your gardenias after they finish blooming.

    June 3, 2014 at 2:22 pm
  12. Steve Bender

    There’s nothing to do but wait and see.

    June 3, 2014 at 2:21 pm
  13. Steve Bender

    It should. Make sure it gets plenty of sun.

    June 3, 2014 at 2:20 pm
  14. Steve Bender

    Go ahead and prune out the dead.

    June 3, 2014 at 2:16 pm
  15. Steve Bender

    Cut back your butterfly bushes to the base where you see new growth. They’ll still bloom this year.

    June 3, 2014 at 2:15 pm

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