All of us in north Georgia breathed a sigh of relief when the extreme temperatures of late December moved on – but just because those single-digit nights are gone does not mean we aren’t still feeling the effects.

Doubt it? Just look outside and you’ll see plants in stress like perhaps no other time in recent history.

While we are now experiencing much more moderate temperatures, many of our plants, trees, and shrubs are still suffering from that arctic blast. Shriveling, browning leaves (on evergreens) are everywhere. In fact, our staff, including owner Peter Hughes, has never seen anything quite like the amounts of leaves on the ground at this time of year. Even some hearty, established plants that normally cruise through Georgia winters are looking worse for wear. It is a troubling sight and may have you wondering about the future of your lawn and garden – and with good reason. December’s freezing temperatures may just have killed many plants on your property. But just because they look poorly now does not mean they’re gone. In fact, many will eventually spring back to health.

But how do you know, and when will you know? And is there anything you can do to assist your plants? To answer those questions, let’s look closer at how cold weather effects plants and what you can expect in the coming weeks.


Freezing temperatures and plant damage

There is a good chance that you’ve heard that you should cover or insulate your plants (especially smaller, flowering plants) during hour-long periods of sub-freezing weather. That is, in fact, true. But why? It is all to do with physics and botany.

Plants’ cells are full of water. And when the outside air drops below freezing for hours or days at a time – like it did in December – the water inside those cells freezes. As this happens, it expands and ruptures the cell wall, causing permanent damage to that cell. And if enough cells rupture, the plant will be severely harmed. The whole process, which also produces excess calcium in the plant, is referred to as cold shock. Plants defend themselves against cold shock in the fall by gradually pulling water away from their leaves and extremities and toward the stem/trunk/roots (it is that process that leads to tree leaves changing to their brilliant colors before browning and falling). But here in Georgia, where plants are used to relatively moderate winters, many plants were left exposed when the temperatures dropped to single digits for hours on end.

Cold shock does not necessarily kill the whole plant, as it can be isolated in a particular portion – such as the leaves (in evergreens) and branches. And older, established plants often have the strength and size to overcome sub-freezing temperatures. However, December’s arctic blast will have stressed and likely done some damage to most plants you see.

The frustrating part for us is that it is difficult to tell just how much damage has been done. And, using the naked eye, you’ll likely need to wait several more weeks to see the toll that December’s weather took on the plants around your property.

The good news is that there are things you can do while you bide that time to help improve your plants’ bid for recovery. There are also signs to look out for that denote real stress in the status of your plants.


How to tell if your plant is suffering from cold shock

In the coming days and weeks, you may notice the following signs of plant distress – in fact, you’ve likely already seen at least some signs of these.

  • Wilting, drooping, and/or falling leaves — The most exposed section of any plant, the leaves are the first to exhibit signs of cold shock. And several are already falling all over north Georgia.
  • Discolored leaves — The leaves may not fall off (yet), but many damaged plants will display discolored leaves, turning brown or black. They may even become covered in white spots.
  • Mushy foliage or stems/branches — For smaller, flowering plants, the presence of slime means that your plant is likely beyond help. For bigger, woody plants, it does not necessarily mean it is beyond repair. But you should scrape this substance away to help prevent fungal infection in the plant.
  • Loose roots — If you notice any plant loose at the root ball, it means that that part of the plant suffered damage and will most likely die.

When it comes to bigger plants/trees and perennials, if you suspect cold shock and want to know more about a plant’s health, you can make a small cut in the bark. Once completed, look for green color underneath, if it’s there, the plant is likely fine and will just need some time to bounce back. Also know that more mature plants (at least two years old) stand a much better chance of survival.

If you don’t notice any of these symptoms – or even do – you’re still playing a waiting game to see how the plant responded to the cold. Likely, it will be March or even April before you can make a full assessment of your entire property. In the meantime, there are things you can do to ensure the plants around your home have the best chance at bouncing back to full health.


Helping your plants recover

Now that you know what to look for and what you might expect, let’s look at actions you can take to improve outcomes for the plants that help make living in this beautiful area what it is.

  • Be on guard – First off, keep an eye on the forecast and make sure that if temperatures do approach sub-freezing any time again this winter/early spring that you try and cover/insulate your plants. They’ve already been weakened, so you’ll need to guard against further cold shock.
  • Keep your plants watered – This hasn’t been a problem here because of the recent rains, but, in the future, know that water is a big help after cold shock. This is because when plants freeze, they lose moisture from damaged tissues. Consistent water is one of the three main elements your plants need to survive (and thrive). Therefore, you need to ensure that they are consistently watered to help them recover.
  • Do not fertilize – While it may seem like a good idea, fertilizer is the worst thing you can give to your plants right now. That’s because fertilizer prompts growth, a process which actually stresses the plant. Dealing with the cold has already stressed your plants enough, so let them rest for now.
  • Do not prune – Again, pruning can stress your plant. Right now, it may be hard for you to tell which sections of your plants/trees have severe cold shock and will not recover. And by pruning now, you may actually cut away healthy sections of the plant. Wait until spring before you think about pruning; that way you can be certain which sections are healthy.
  • Remove any mushy sections – This is not pruning. Remember, above we said it is good practice to remove any noticeably black or mushy sections of a plant. That’s because the presence of this substance is rot. And you want to remove that as soon as possible.


So, there you have it. The next few weeks will require vigilance and maybe some action on your part. Frustratingly, you can expect some plants on your property to not burst back to life this spring. When that happens, it will be time to assess removal and replacement. But for plenty more, recovery will happen. Just be patient.

In the meantime, if you’re concerned about the state of the plant life on your property, lawn, or garden, we are always ready to step in and provide you with an expert opinion and to help you create the look and feel of exactly what you want. For years, our experienced and professional guidance has created the perfect balance of beauty and function for home and business owners around north Georgia – and we’re always happy to help new clients to do the same. Contact us today at 678-617-1962 — or email us at – and let us create the perfect plant life on your property.