Outdoors Recreation

The Observant Gardener: A Lost Plant is a Gardening Opportunity

Hydrangeas. Photo by Judith Canty Graves

“The seeds of resilience are planted in the way we process the negative events in our lives.” ~ Sheryl Sandberg

By Judith Canty Graves

Over the Christmas weekend in 2022, Western North Carolina had a major freeze for two days and nights due to a bomb cyclone named Winter Storm Elliot. During that weekend the temperature dropped from 50 degrees to zero degrees in only eight hours as a powerful cold front moved in. This sudden drop in temperature is known as a flash freeze. Forecasters called Elliot a “once-in-a-generation” weather event.

As a gardener I always watch weather forecasts carefully, and I was anxious about possible damage to the plants in my yard. There was no way to put row cover on many sensitive plants, especially with the high winds that came with the temperature drop. There was nothing I could do, so I waited through the Christmas weekend hoping for the best.

Over the coming days I walked around my yard to inspect the plants. I was shocked to see damage on many broadleaf evergreens such as rhododendrons, camellias, Skip laurels, acubas and two mahonia plants. The mahonias were about to open their small yellow flowers in late December, but the freeze killed them. All of the mahonia leaves turned brown a few days later and dropped to the ground.

During the next few weeks, I found videos online of garden experts describing the damage. VolunteerGardener.org in Tennessee had an excellent video explaining how the arctic cold killed the cells in the leaves of broadleaf evergreens. Ending on a positive note, the video host pointed out that a lost plant is a gardening opportunity. That advice resonated with me and the idea of a gardening opportunity became the inspiration for this column.

By March, many of my damaged plants were showing signs of life, forming new buds for leaves and flowers. Nature is resilient, so I was hopeful that at least some of the plants would revive, especially once spring began. But I noticed that my mahonia shrubs still showed no sign of life. Even scraping the bark did not reveal green inside. These were lost plants and no amount of waiting would bring them back. So

I began to think about what opportunity this gave me. As I have written before, our gardens are constantly changing, so we must adapt to changes as they happen.

I began to imagine what I could put in this new opening in my garden, which was a pleasant exercise. I took my cue from a group of hydrangeas nearby, and I decided to fill in the space with more hydrangeas.

This is a process that gardeners embark on every spring after a winter of dreaming about their gardens. Of course, there is the hard work of digging, pruning and cleaning out the winter debris, but that is the foundation of the creative side of gardening. Losing the two mature mahonia shrubs with their handsome evergreen leaves was a big loss, but it also created an opportunity for additional hydrangea blooms in my yard.

Judith Canty Graves is an Asheville gardener with a background in photojournalism. Follow @TheObservantGardener on Instagram to see new garden photos daily.

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