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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Past winter was a tough season for shrubs and perennials

Jessica Damiano lost this Knockout rose and several

Jessica Damiano lost this Knockout rose and several other mature plants and shrubs over winter, as did many Long Islanders.  Photo Credit: Jessica Damiano

DEAR READERS: At the beginning of May, I received a handful of emails from Long Island gardeners concerned their shrubs had died over the winter. The weather had been chilly, and one of my own butterfly bushes hadn’t emerged from dormancy yet, so I surmised the season was a bit late to get started and advised them to wait it out, and let me know by the end of the month how their plants were faring.

In the weeks that followed, I received a few more letters and emails expressing concern about various still-dormant or dead shrubs. And by the end of May, I had poked around my own garden closely enough to notice a disturbing pattern.

I lost about three-quarters of my large redtwig dogwood stand, two entire knockout rose bushes — plus roughly one-fourth each of a couple others, as well as an entire mature spirea. That large, mature butterfly bush never did come back, and my unwrapped fig tree is dead as a doornail. (I know, I know. I've been busy!)

Come to think of it, for the first time ever, I had to prune quite a few dead rhododendron branches last month, although I didn't think much of it at the time. All those plants had all been healthy and vigorous in the past, showing no sign of decline.

I reached out to Vinnie Drzewucki, horticulture resource educator at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County, which is in close contact with area residents, fielding calls and manning the diagnostic clinic at East Meadow Farm.

“I think it is the weather,” Drzewucki said. “There’s been similar complaints of winter burn or die-back coming into our office on shrubs, including butterfly bush and loss of perennials this spring. Winter sun and wind during cold snaps can have a freeze-dried effect on exposed plant parts and even roots, especially in areas lacking mulch.”

Aha! I hadn't gotten around to applying winter mulch last fall, and come to think of it, I don't believe I replenished it the prior spring, either. 

Symptoms, he said, “include brown leaf margins to completely dead shoots, twigs and branches to perennials that completely disappeared over the winter.

“Low temperatures can even kill roots in soil if not protected with mulch," Drzewucki said. "Most were the usual victims of winter damage and loss, broadleaf evergreens such as aucuba, hollies and rhododendrons, perennials like coreopsis and hardy geraniums. Some fig trees were especially hit badly if they were exposed and not protected.”

Parts of my once-lush beds are barren now, but I’m trying to see a silver lining: There will be no need to dig up and divide — or engage in any serious pruning at the end of the growing season. And for the first time in a long time, I have gaps to fill with new plants I'd been eyeing, but until now had no room for. This is, after all, the circle of life. As gardeners, we can try to manipulate it, but in the end nature always wins.

In addition to all the subjects in the third-grade curriculum at East Broadway Elementary School in Seaford, Maya Stavrinos has learned an important lesson: growing a big, green cabbage can result in a big, green payout!

Stavrinos, now 10, entered the annual National Bonnie Plants Cabbage Program’s New York State Contest in March 2018 along with her classmates from Dianne DuBeau’s third-grade class. Nearly a year later, the green-thumbed Seaford tween harvested a $1,000 prize.

“Each student was given a plant to take home. Maya grew hers, and we submitted a photograph, weighed it and submitted her entry last September, right before fourth grade started,” her proud mom, Juarline Stavrinos, said, adding that Maya has gardening in her blood.

“She gets that from my dad,” Stavrinos said. “This was definitely a grandpa-granddaughter thing. The first thing Maya said when she came home with the plant was, ‘I’m going to talk to Lito [her name for her grandfather]. I know I’m going to win!’” Then Maya orchestrated a game plan: “We’ve got to plant it and get Miracle-Gro,” she told her mom. From there on, it was Maya’s project.

“I kept it by the window to grow bigger before it went into the ground,” she said, adding that when the time was right — in April — her grandpa helped her plant it in the backyard. Maya diligently watered and fertilized her plant, and checked its progress daily. What were her thoughts when she observed rapid growth from one day to the next? One word: “Whoa!”

Before she knew it, Maya’s cabbage reached 29 pounds and was named “best” in the class. Next it went head-to-head with other head-of-the-class cabbages grown is schools throughout New York, and it was selected in a drawing as Best in State.

The program, which began as a local competition in Alabama in 1996 and went national in 2002, awards one $1,000 scholarship in each of 48 participating states every year.

So, what happened to Maya’s behemoth cabbage?

“Unfortunately, we had to pick it early because it started to get cabbage worms, so we did not eat it,” Stavrinos said. “We were grossed out by the cabbage worms, so we threw it away,” she added with a chuckle. Despite that, the infested cruciferous vegetable was not a waste: Maya was awarded $1,000 from Bonnie Plants.

“We offered to buy her something with it — a new bike or anything and she wanted,” Stavrinos said, “but she chose to put it away into her college fund.”

Hopefully, by the time college rolls around, her prize will grow as large as her cabbage did.

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