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Wacky Winter Weather Warning for Landscapes

Snow the week of Christmas followed by 14 days of warm weather has confused native plants. When temperatures hit 70 and hold, they think it's spring.

"I was out hiking and saw some native azaleas with big buds. And some cherry trees and swamp maples around Athens are showing bloom," said Wayne McLaurin, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

"Some shrubs and trees are going to bloom in this extended warm weather," he said. "And if the temperature drops, it will kill many of the buds."

Many homeowners are seeing their bulbs, like daffodils, hyacinths and crocus, popping up.

"The bulbs are coming up, but they can withstand a lot of cold," McLaurin said. "The best thing you can do for things that are coming up is to mulch them."

He suggests using leaves you have around your yard to mulch the plants well.

"That will help insulate them from the cold air and the warm air," McLaurin said. "Mulch will help keep the root system an even temperature. That keeps the roots cooler and keeps the sun from heating up the soil. So it will slow down the growth that's coming out too early now."

Perennial garden vegetables like asparagus aren't showing any signs of rousing from their winter sleep.

"We just don't want gardeners to get anxious and start wanting to plant stuff," McLaurin warned. "We have a lot of winter left."

If you're worried about losing the show of your flowering trees and shrubs, you should be.

"Those that are showing flower activity now are primarily at risk," said extension horticulturist Jim Midcap. "Those are the trees that usually have low chilling requirements."

"I've seen some Bradford pears that are swelling, and they'll be at risk," he said. "But redbuds aren't showing any activity because they probably haven't had enough chilling to break their dormancy. So they'll make it even through the warm spells."

The tree's flowers most at risk are the early spring bloomers including Bradford pear, Japanese magnolias and some of the early blooming cherry varieties. Some varieties of jasmine are also showing flower color.

"Some forsythias are in bloom," Midcap said. "And those buds and blooms often get zapped by freezes in late winter or early spring if it gets cold enough."

Once zapped by winter freeze, will trees rebud?

"On most spring flowering trees, the buds are preformed in late summer or early fall," Midcap said. "If it gets cold it will kill those that have started to swell. But there are often smaller buds that are later coming out, and they will survive because they haven't started to swell."

Don't give up completely on the spring flower show in your yard.

"Buds that are swelling now will probably be killed if we get colder weather," he said. "Those that aren't beginning to swell will be hardy enough to survive. But if they all get killed, there won't be any flowers."

The spring will still be green, he said, because leaf buds come out later than the flower buds and are much hardier.

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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