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Winter took a toll this year

Despite snow in the mountains this week, winter seems to have receded. However, it's only now that many gardeners are able to see how this year's erratic weather has affected plants.

It was warm for a very long time last fall, then without a whole lot of rain, it suddenly got extra cold in December, and that deep freeze lasted a long time. Either of those events could have done damage by themselves. Together they created a few holes in area gardens.

In my garden I lost a lithodora that sat right outside my office window. I always loved seeing it bloom in proximity with candytuft (Iberis). Something about the combination of vivid-blue lithodora and hospital-white candytuft has been particularly energizing on gray, spring days. In general, both are very easy-care plants that cascade deliciously on rock walls, or mound agreeably as neighboring ground covers. The combination of extreme cold in December and the placement on the north side of the house turned my entire lithodora plant black. It's a goner.

I'm not the only one with plant losses. As I drive around, I've noticed many dead New Zealand flax (Phormium tenex). Some gardeners I've talked to report new shoots emerging from the roots of a few plants, but many seem to have died. Although Phormium are zone 7 plants, and can even be planted in colder areas, the combination of heavy soil and the long cold with temperatures under 20 degrees was a one-two knockout punch for them. If you've got such a plant, it's possible it could still show some life, but don't count on it. If you love it, go ahead and plant it again. They are fast growers and hopefully we won't see that kind of low temperature again for a while.

Some people may have experienced some cane loss on rose plants. If you lose all your rose's canes, and it regrows from the roots, scrutinize the new growth carefully. If your variety was grafted onto root stock, that may be what's growing rather than the hybrid rose you knew and loved. I generally plant my roses with the graft below ground to prevent that kind of loss. I'm probably over cautious, but I do get attached to my roses.

I talked with Sharon May, a Master Gardener Plant Clinic specialist, to see what damage reports were being called in to the clinic. Reviewing her April records, she found calls about escallonia, tulip tree and crape myrtle. Young crape myrtles will often die back even in less severe winters, but they usually return from the roots with more than one trunk. This could make the freeze an asset, as they are even more lovely with multiple trunks.

Mary Heath lost hebe 'Amy' from her wonderful garden, and she speculates that variety is more tender than her other hebe varieties, which are doing fine. She's seeing new growth from the roots from escallonia, cape fuchsias and most New Zealand flax, which had all died to the ground. Let's hope you will experience similar regrowth.

One plant clinic caller was concerned about the spring frost that damaged leaf buds on a locust tree. In most cases of frost damage, trees and shrubs will form new leaf buds.

Of course, I can only speak in generalities in this column. With all the micro-climates and frost pockets in the area, your experience could be different — for better or for worse. If you are feeling bad about your garden, consider that local nurseries experienced losses, too. Plants in pots are even more vulnerable than plants in the ground.

You might find a remedy for your plant losses at the Expo Center this weekend. It's the Master Gardener Spring Fair, and the place will be filled with plant vendors. It's an exciting event for gardeners, with gadgets and garden ephemera featured, as well as classes, lectures and plants, plants, plants.

You can't ask for a better deal. The admission is low: $3 for adults, with children under 12 free. Hours for the event are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. No pets, please.

Whether you are looking for ornamentals to replace the plants you've lost, veggie starts, or something new and different, you are likely to find something there. This year they even have wine tasting.

Enjoy yourself.

Master gardener Althea Godfrey is gardening editor for HomeLife magazine. Reach her at writealthea@charter.net.