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Sunday, January 15, 2017

What Not To Wear, for shrubs

I can still remember my first down parka. Back then we were suffering through winter in uncomfortable wool coats. During the energy crisis of the seventies, I was walking to class early mornings in Cleveland. I was cold!

    A friend steered me to a new kind of coat, sold at a wilderness outfitter. I tried one on when I came home to Boston for the holidays. It was huge, dull blue-gray, and gloriously warm. The maker had dubbed it, “The Yeti.” 

A friendly Yeti

It wasn’t flattering, but that parka changed my winter experience.

     My neighborhood is dotted with swaddled shrubs, apparently wrapped up by soft-hearted owners who are trying to keep away the cold. But unlike me, plants don’t need the Yeti when temperatures are cold. 

Nice thought, but not necessary

     Plants don’t hold in warmth like us warm-blooded mammals. There are two putative reasons why wrapping shrubs could make sense. First, a windbreak can prevent loss of moisture. Desiccation is particularly a problem for plants that hold their leaves through the winter, such as the rhododendrons, Japanese andromedas, and mountain laurels that are so common in foundation plantings around town. 

Challenged by dry winter air

Second, support from wrapping the shrubs and tying them up with twine might prevent branches from being bent down by snow.

Heavy snow may bend shrubs temporarily

     My first objection to this practice is aesthetic. Why plant ornamental shrubs and then cover them in ugly wrappings for four or five months of the year? It seems to defeat the whole purpose of choosing broad-leafed evergreens. The reason we plant these shrubs with such monotonous consistency is precisely because they lend a bit of green and a sense of life to the winter landscape.


     On a more practical level, the wrappings don’t really help the shrubs much. The plants have evolved to deal with dry winter air, and branches that bend in the snow gradually resume their upright position in spring. 

Better looking, but still not necessary

Rather than wrapping, the better approach is to plant in the right place. A rhododendron likes a sheltered woodland spot with acid soil, not a windswept steppe of lawn where is has no cover from arctic winds. 

Rhododendrons prefer shade and shelter

     If the plants go into the winter with plenty of water, they’ll be able to hold on through the season despite the cold, drying air. 

     Last summer’s drought was very tough on our shrubs and trees. Despite recent rain and snow, we’re still way behind. Logan Airport recorded 33 inches of rainfall in the Boston area in 2016, compared to the annual average of 44 inches.

     The dry conditions took their toll. I notice dead branches on my own shrubs and some neighborhood evergreens that have finally turned completely brown, succumbing to long-term water deprivation.

Drought casualties

Perennials are tucked away underground at this season, storing everything they need for next year in their roots. Evergreen shrubs, on the other hand, have to keep their leaves and needles alive year round. Instead of winter coats, they should get priority for fall watering to help them stay hydrated through the winter.

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