Still time for winter-weary plants to sprout, W.Pa. gardening experts say

| Wednesday, April 30, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

You don't see them much in Western Pennsylvania, the striking blue atlas cedar tree that jazzed up Leslie Abaray's yard in Verona. Its firm, blue-green needles evolved in the warm Atlas Mountains of northern Africa, where temperatures rarely slip below 40.

Now those needles are a deep bronze, tumbling one by one to the ground.

Like a cross-section of sensitive landscaping across the region, the fragrant conifer bears scars from a frigid, blustery winter that roughed up some root systems, dried out shrubs and killed a popular species of lawn grass.

“Its thinner branches do snap, which is definitely a sign of death. There's a little bit of give in some larger branches, but I'm pretty sure it's not coming back,” said Abaray, who bought her cedar tree at a Maryland nursery a decade ago.

Worried customers at the Penn Hills Lawn and Garden Center, where Abaray works in sales, are hauling in parched rhododendrons, azaleas and hollies, along with weather-weary English ivy and more sensitive trees.

Store owner Jayme Visnesky said certain broad-leaf plants might look depleted from the prolonged sub-zero temperatures that chilled Pennsylvania through one of its most severe winters in a decade.

But she cautioned gardeners not to assume the worst.

There still are a few weeks for greenery to sprout as warmer weather takes hold, she and other experts said.

“We're not seeing anybody come in with completely dead stuff yet. I think we're going to be able to tell that as the weather starts to change into actual spring weather,” Visnesky said.

Needled evergreens such as spruce, Douglas fir and juniper trees might join broad-leaf evergreens such as mountain laurel in showing more obvious browning, warned Jim Sellmer, an ornamental horticulture professor at Penn State University.

He said most will shed the needles tarnished by extreme cold, then green up by summer.

“Right now, I'm pretty optimistic,” Sellmer said. “In most cases, the plants will respond positively.”

Nancy Bergman of Harmony said she waits until June before she gives up any plants for dead. She estimated springtime growth is running two weeks later than usual because of a chilly early season.

“The frost did a number on some of the daffodils, early bulbs and magnolia trees,” said Bergman, a master gardener who works with the Southern Butler County Garden Club.

She said the winter wasn't all bad, with heavy snow cover that kept many plants cozy and damp. That cut down on the amount of dead growth that gardeners need to pare from some plantings, Bergman said.

“I think the winter was harder on people than it was on plants,” she said, calling any lost shrubs an opportunity to grow something else.

The snow helped drum up spotty patches of snow mold, a fungal disease that spreads across lawns beneath snow cover, said Pete Landschoot, a Penn State turfgrass science professor.

He said the mold typically disappears once the snow melts, and shouldn't stop new grass from growing. Damage can be more severe for homeowners whose lawns are planted with perennial ryegrass, much of which died during the winter's extreme cold.

That happens in Pennsylvania once every 15 or so winters, Landschoot said. He last saw a perennial ryegrass die-off in the state in the mid-1990s.

“You always expect it when you have these really hard winters,” he said. He recommends reseeding a lawn with the same soft ryegrass, which he said spreads quickly.

For those dealing with dried-out trees, ivy or shrubs, Visnesky recommends patience. They might want to rake out dead leaves around English ivy to help stimulate growth. Larger areas of the ivy might benefit from a trimming of older, browned foliage.

Visnesky said a similar approach of strategic trimming could work with tired-looking azaleas or rhododendrons. Organic, slow-release fertilizer could help with some species as well, she said.

“Every warm day, stuff is sprouting if it's going to,” said Grace Mitchell of Washington, a member of the Martha Washington Garden Club. “I think we'll be all right. We've lived through worse winters than this.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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