CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- So far, winter has proven to be a test of endurance and wits for most people around the state. Because of the trend of relatively mild winters with only short bursts of cold and snow, we have grown unaccustomed to the bitter bite of winter. You'll have to go back a few decades to find a winter as harsh as this one.
The question is, have we become so accustomed to mild winters that we might have some unexpected damage or death in the garden? To find out, we will likely have to play the waiting game.
I would bet that most gardeners have grown complacent in preparing their gardens for winter or even have felt secure enough to include trees, shrubs and perennials in their landscape that might not be completely hardy. I, myself, have plants in my landscape that push limits.
I'm expecting at least some damage to my Camellia sinensis tea shrub, as it is hardy to Zone 6b (or 7, depending on whom you ask). While technically I am in Zone 7 in Charleston, the zones are based on averages, and I can tell you that our sub-freezing temps are well below those expected for Zone 7.
Even hardier plants like kale gave up during the arctic vortex.
What are zones and what do they mean?
The USDA Hardiness Zone map delineates the country into areas based on an average of their lowest temperatures each year. When new map data are determined, the lowest recorded temperature for each year over 30 years is used to determine an average lowest temperature.
The map is accurate only when it is updated regularly. A new map was released a few years ago but was already a few years behind.
The averages are the categorized into zones of 10 degrees each, with a further breakdown in units of five that are denoted with the letters "a" or "b." This means that if you live in Zone 6a, the average lowest temperature is between minus 10 and minus 5 degrees Fahrenheit; Zone 6b averages at minus 5 to zero.
Since these are averages, unfortunately you can't predict how cold it will get.
What does this weather mean for gardeners?
As I stated, many of us have become complacent with mild winters and have given little thought to protecting our trees, shrubs, perennials and even overwintering vegetables from freezing.
Unfortunately, hindsight really is 20/20, and if you did nothing to protect your plants during the cold snap, you may see damage. I would bet that even plants rated for our zones or lower could even see damage.
One that I'm betting on getting calls about come spring is crape myrtle. This popular shrub dominates the South, but it has slowly worked its way north. Most of the ones sold in this area are hardy to Zone 6, but we live at the northern extreme of their natural limit.