I happened to catch the annual Groundhog Day festivities yesterday. Punxsutawney Phil was his usual chipper self, and he dutifully saw his shadow before going back to bed (wish I could have done the same). And so, it’s said that we have another six weeks of winter ahead of us.
I’m thinking that what Phil was telling us is that everybody up North is going to have another six weeks of winter. I’m not seeing it here down South. What’s more, I’m seeing some indications that an early spring may be headed our way. Now, I’m nowheres near as scientific about this sort of thing as Punxsutawney Phil is, so while I’m seeing signs of spring sooner rather than later I don’t feel comfortable making any assumptions. So here are some indicators, some things you may want to be aware of, and what you need to do about them.
Here’s a nice little twin-trunk Winged elm, Ulmus alata, that I lifted last month. Nothing unusual about that; we are, after all, in collecting season. So I trimmed and potted it up, then forgot about it.
Yesterday I was checking on my stock and noticed that this tree is actually pushing buds! I truly didn’t expect it this soon, but with temperatures higher than normal, even into the 80s during the day, this tree has decided it’s time to start budding.
And I’m not talking about that barely noticeable budding, either.
No, there are actually tiny leaves emerging.
So, what do you need to consider when some of your trees decide to break dormancy early? And why does it even happen? For the second question, there are a few reasons I know of that trees break dormancy early. One is pretty obvious: warm temperatures in late winter. Warmth, along with increasing amounts of sunshine as we leave the winter solstice behind, can cause trees to begin leafing out weeks ahead of “schedule.” And when you think about this, it makes sense. After all, trees break dormancy earlier in the South than in the North because (in part) it gets warmer down here much sooner. No mystery there.
There’s a second reason trees break dormancy early, and that has to do with the basic fact of collecting them. When we lift a tree from the ground, we cut back both the aboveground part of the tree as well as the root system. In response, the tree attempts to regrow what’s been cut away. So with my winged elm above, I lifted it last month and now, with temperatures higher than they should be, the tree has responded by actively regenerating both roots and shoots. This is really just simple horticulture.
Now, it’s important that we consider what steps we may need to take for these trees that come out early. Why? Well, for anyone who’s grown bonsai for a while you know that as winter gets long in the tooth there are alternating warm days and the occasional freeze. That why, down South, we have our old wives’ tale that you don’t plant your vegetable garden until after Good Friday. The odds of a freeze after Good Friday are vanishingly small. So, for your bonsai and pre-bonsai that are pushing buds early you need to keep a close watch on the forecast and be prepared to provide extra protection from freezing temps. Of what sort and how much? That will depend on how cold it gets where you are. The sap running through your tree will not freeze at 32°F, because it has sugars and other solutes in it that lower the freezing point. But that doesn’t mean the tree is impervious to the cold, so if your local temps will go below about 25 I’d recommend your trees go on the ground or into an unheated garage or other space. Yes, you’ll need to truck them back outside when the cold passes, but that’s preferable to having them damaged or even killed by a late-season freeze.
Here’s another eager beaver that took me completely by surprise, Allen’s crape myrtle. This tree is due for a repotting, which I hope to have done over the next few days, but I had no idea the warm temps would cause it to bud. I don’t recall this happening last winter.
As with the elm above, this one isn’t just pushing tiny little nascent buds; no, it’s downright leafing out. Unfortunately, all of this growth is about to get cut off. This tree has become very overgrown and needs to be brought back in. The good news is, once I trim the roots as part of the repotting process, this tree should come out again very quickly.