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Patience, grasshopper

by Phyllis Griffard, Education and Outreach

Winter came through with a vengeance last week, but nature and her plants are tough. It only took one little electric heater and Prop team vigilance in the greenhouse to fend off damage to most of our young native seedlings. We only lost some mallows that we'll be growing again this spring. Like nature, we have extra seeds, just in case. The hardier woody plants outside and those from Louisiana Growers for the sale seemed to manage. If you bought one of our deciduous woody plants (one that loses its leaves in winter), you may be worried about whether it made it. Two ways to tell: WAIT and see if it responds to spring cues to bud and leaf out. Give it at least a month. Another way to tell if your "stick" is still alive is to scrape the bark lightly to see if the tissue under it is alive (moist and green-tinged, not recommended for oaks). If it didn't make it, get in touch. We'll make it right. At home, we did not cover or bring in any of our native plants. The irises, winecup, beebalm, coneflower, rudbeckias, lyre-leaf sage, coral honeysuckle, equisetum, viburnums and artemisia (dusty miller) are still green, whereas the spider lilies, tropical sage, shield ferns, Barbados cherry and most of our nonnative hummingbird plants (bottlebrush, cigar plant, firespike) took a hard hit. What are we doing about it? Nothing. Not right away, anyway. We waited a couple of weeks before cutting the mushy dead straps on the spider lilies, because cuts are wounds that can introduce infection a weak plant may not be able to fend off. Better to let its metabolism crank up again first. We're not cutting dead branches on small bushes yet either. This dead material provides protection for the center of the plant while it wakes up and in case of another weather challenge.  It takes special cues of day length and temperatures to initiate a complex unlocking process to get gene expression going after winter. This goes for seeds too. So if you've just planted seeds, don't be surprised if it takes weeks and weeks to show some germination. Nature has provided adaptations for plants and seeds to make it through winter; our best intentions can make things worse. When trying to decide, err on the side of lazy (patient), and ask yourself What Would Nature Do?


The other thing to remember about perennial nonwoody plants, like prairie grasses and forbs, is that they may lose their entire shoot (aboveground part), but will regrow from their root system. That process also requires a cascade of genes to be turned on to initiate cell division and development into specialized tissues. So resist jumping to the conclusion that a plant that looks dead above ground will not come back. On the other hand, annuals, like many prairie forbs, use a different strategy. Before they die back in fall, they divert most of their resources into prolific seeding, which produces enough extra to feed birds and still have a high germination rate in spring. 

Which brings us to why waiting to clean up after winter is good for wildlife, not just your plants. Those sunflower, elephantopus and goldenrod deadheads are chock full of seeds that provide a feast all winter for birds. Leave some thickets of branches, which is great shelter for birds. In native gardens it's always good practice to leave the dry stems and leaves through winter. That is because a huge number of insect species overwinter as larvae and pupae in hollow stems and in leaf matter. This includes numerous important pollinators like native, ground-nesting solitary bees as well as all those caterpillars your birds will need to feed their babies this spring. Don't like the way the dead stalks look? Keep a clean edge. And get out your binoculars to tweak your point of view. For inspiration, check out Piet Oudolf's stunning landscape designs that work with seasons. And remind yourself what a good thing you're doing by being patient.

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