I am holding out hope that three Japanese maples battered by the brutal winter can still be saved. Optimism and denial are working overtime. Hope may spring eternal … but will our trees?
Japanese maples aren’t reliably hardy in our part of the world. But, with global climate change and all, I was emboldened to take a chance on them. Enter the Polar Vortex, day after day of seriously below- zero temperatures with relentless wind. I held my breath, exhaling only in spring when I saw the branches covered in leaf buds. Each day, I checked them. It wasn’t just my imagination. The buds were swelling, weren’t they? By April, I was rejoicing that the trees seemed to have made it through the brutal winter. Then it snowed.
In May, the trees began leafing out, but only on the bottom branches. I kept hoping the leaves would progress from the bottom up. Nothing happened. I called the nursery where I’d purchased the trees. Most nurseries guarantee trees and shrubs for a year or two. Unfortunately, mine were no longer covered. Still, I wanted to know how the other Japanese maples in the nursery had fared. Were the nursery staff seeing the same pattern? What would they recommend? Should I wait and give the trees a chance? Prune them back to where the branches had leaves in hopes of promoting new growth? Alas, it was May — a very busy time in nurseries — and no one answered my call.
So, I sent photos and an e-mail to the woody tree specialist for University of Wisconsin Extension. She didn’t answer either. Apparently, May is just as busy for Extension specialists.
Undeterred, I did what gardeners often do: I asked other gardeners. Cari Stebbins, operations manager at American Players Theatre, gave me a fabulous suggestion. Try scratching the bark lightly to look for green wood. Brilliant! I put in an hour or so nicking the bark on every blasted branch of three trees with my thumb nail. If there was no green wood beneath the bark, I cut that branch away. It was tedious, but worth it. I was saving my trees!
By mid-June, I noticed the few leaves that had managed to grow on upper branches were wilting. The trees’ circulatory systems must have been damaged. Not good. I tried nicking the branches again and found fewer places with green wood. Former colleagues at the UW-Extension Horticulture Center at Boerner Botanical Gardens sent an article by an Extension agent in Missouri. There, when left unpruned, the dead wood on the damaged trees proved a breeding ground for insect damage and disease. That pushed me over the edge.
On the Fourth of July, with reluctance and misgivings, I liberated my trees from their dead branches. If my Japanese maples survive another winter, they will mostly likely grow as shrubs instead of trees. They will not be the stately trees I envisioned, but I will be delighted anyway. It’s all part of blitz in the garden.
Patrice Peltier lives in Spring Green and writes regularly for Wisconsin Gardening, Chicagoland Gardening and The Landscape Contractor magazines. Her work has appeared in Better Homes and Gardens and Midwest Living magazines.