Cut damaged holly, celebrate unharmed Japanese maples

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It can be confusing to look at a whole shrub and decide what to cut. It's true even of three branches, such as in the image above. Instead, when we cut to remove winter damage, we simply cut one branch at a time. Read how, here. 

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Evergreen holly (Ilex x meserveae varieties such as 'Blue Princess', 'China Girl', 'Blue Boy' etc.) should be green, not brown. The cold killed leaves and branches of many of these plants this winter.

(Go figure: Plants we've seen hurt in milder winters than this, came through just fine. Take a look at our example Japanese maple, then compare it to twigs from your tree.)

For the holly and other winter-damaged shrubs and trees: Determine what's dead and cut it out sooner rather than later.


Above, and below: Off-color is a first indication that there's damage. Much of the foliage on the shrub above and all of the left-hand twig below were killed by cold.


 Below: Not sure it's dead? Scratch the wood. Live wood is both green and moist beneath the bark. The twig on the right is live, the twig on the left, dead.
Not sure if the scratched cambium is moist? Press a area to your cheek. What feels cool is moist.

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Below, left: Leaf buds and/or flower buds may remain alive even when their branch dies, much as a cut flower can remain alive in a vase. (The left twig has died but its buds are still alive.) Yet if buds open on a badly damaged branch, they will die as soon as hot, dry weather comes. For the plant, that's wasted energy. Better to remove all damaged wood as soon as you can in spring. Cut back to bare wood if you must.

Below, right: The clustered buds where the holly leaf joins the stem are flower buds.

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 Below: Cut a damaged branch to remove all dead wood. On this holly, it means we reach down along each branch with dead wood and cut below the damage. What's left is a leafless stick. No worries: Light and spring growth cycles will cause new shoots to develop on that stub just below our cut.

Below, right: We can gauge this shrub's growth rate by the twig color and terminal bud scars. It's been growing about 6 inches per year. At that rate, new shoots from the cut limb will be able to grow for several years before reaching the outer shearing line. They will be able to mature, flower and fruit. The shrub will have a thicker coat of foliage and more berries.

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 Below: We cut the undamaged branches, too. Those we cut back far enough that they can grow for a full year within the height and width limits we've set for the shrub. For a shrub like this that grows about 6 inches per year, we cut back at least 6 inches.

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Meanwhile, Japanese maples we expected to be hurt...


...have come through the coldest winter on record with zero dieback. See? The twigs scratch green and moist, and a look inside even the tip-top buds reveals nothing but lively green.








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