Will My Plants Survive The Polar Vortex?

If you live in an area that’s been hit by the recent polar vortex, you may be worried about your plants.

Let me give you a few guidelines about what you may expect to see next spring. Always note however these are guidelines and individual gardens will be different so you may find that one rule does not fit every garden.

Annual flowers

I suspect you already know you won’t see your annual flowers again. But, somebody is going to ask. So annual flowers will die. Those of you who have self-sowing annuals will find they will likely continue to do so but sporadically.

Flowering bulbs

Unless you are pushing a zone on some of your bulbs, you should find they remain hardy and blooming.

Note: Tulips really only bloom for one or possibly two years. So if yours do not bloom this spring, it’s not because of cold. It’s because that’s the way they are and I have written about tulip care on the site before.

Daffodils and most other hardy bulbs should be fine.

Perennial flowers

When it comes to the cold, there are two forms of what we call perennial flowers.

Plants such as lavender (it’s really a sub – shrub) will either be burned or dead in the spring.

Other above-ground perennial plants such as the Dianthus family, will likely be a pile of mush when the snow melts.

As an aside, if you have a significant amount of snow over your perennial flowers then these suggestions may not hold for you. Snow is an excellent insulator. Having said that, any perennial that normally lives above ground is likely toast.

Perennial flowers out of their zone.

If you live in a zone four and have been able to grow zone five perennials, then I would suggest you get ready for some failures this spring.

I note that marketers tend to overestimate the hardiness of their perennials.

All other perennials

If your garden has been snow-covered, I would think you should be fine next spring.If your garden is not snow-covered, then it depends on what you are growing. Plants such as peonies, daylilies, and iris will be fine. There are simply too many other perennials to list for hardiness ratings.


Flowering shrubs come in a wide spectrum of hardiness. Some will be hardy for their branches, but the buds will be frost sensitive. Many of the hydrangea family will fit in this category. This means the shrub will be fine but it will not bloom.

Does Your Shrub Look Dead? Here’s How To Test It.

In the spring, if your shrub appears dead, here’s a simple trick to test it. With your thumbnail, scratch the bark off a branch to look for the colour of the wood underneath it. If you’ve just scratched the bark off, the layer underneath should be green. If it’s brown, that branch is dead. That’s the simple way to test to see how much damage has been done to the individual shrub.

Even if your shrub has been killed – and all of the top branches are dead – do not give up hope. I would suggest you simply cut the shrub to the ground, and wait for a month or so to see if it throws new shoots from the roots.

There is a very good chance this will happen.


Here is the general rule of thumb for all evergreen shrubs. Brown foliage means the leaf is definitely dead.

Having said that, many shrubs have dormant buds at the leaf axils. If those buds are alive, the shrub will grow a new leaf. If the bud is dead, then you will have to do some creative pruning of the growing tips to force new growth to fill in the spaces.

I note that different shrubs – be they evergreen or woody – have different patterns of dormant buds.

Some, such as cedar, only have dormant buds at the end of the branches. Anything that is several years old has died. Other shrubs such as yews have dormant buds right back to the main trunk, and never die. If you’re not sure which you have, take a deep breath and allow the plant a month or so to demonstrate whether it will regrow or be so ugly you will cut it down.

In general, though, the advice here is pretty much the same as with perennials. If you are growing a shrub out of its recommended hardiness range – as I am – you may expect some burning or death. I have several yews in a well-protected space in my back garden. They are out of the wind – which does much of the damage in the winter – and have been fine for the last seven years. I’ll have to get back to you to see if the cold kills them or not. The problem is that we have also had some north winds driving cold into that backyard area. And although they are protected by a lilac hedge 30 feet away, all bets are off on their survival.

Most “needled” shrubs will act like the cedar. If they are badly burned because they are exposed directly to the wind, you may have lost the plant or have to live with a very ugly plant.

Broadleaved evergreens

Plants such as the Azalea family with leaves that remain on the shrub all winter may have extensive burning. These brown leaves are dead, and they will not regrow. Again, you will have to see if there are dormant buds that emerge. Use the scraping fingernail test to see how much dead wood you have on the plant, and have some patience.


The same rules that I have mentioned before shrubs will apply to your trees. If you are growing something well out of its zone, you may lose it. But if it is within its zone, you may have some minor death of branches but the survival rates should be good. I hold out hope for my Japanese Maple but…

Evergreen trees will be similar to evergreen shrubs

I have two last thoughts for you to consider

Perennial flowers

The first is with perennial flowers, and that is when I ran my nursery there was always one perennial flower that would die every year. And it would die in all gardens. It was always unexpected and it became a bit of a joke to see which perennial flower would die.

It could be the hardiest perennial you could imagine, but many local gardeners would lose it.

This is all by way of saying the guidelines above are simply guidelines. Local weather patterns and your individual garden will dictate the level of damage your garden will experience.

Having said all that

Having said all of the above, let me suggest another way of looking at your garden. If you lose plants, it is a perfect opportunity to try out new plants and new ways of looking at your garden.

Think of it as an opportunity to create something new and exciting rather than a loss.

I hope these guidelines help in some small way. Hope springs eternal in the mind of the true gardener.

One thought on “Will My Plants Survive The Polar Vortex?”

  1. Love the idea to try new plants, it is to easy to just be sad about a favorite plant dying. Time to order plant catalogs. I live in Northern Calif. so not nearly the damage you get, but hoping you don’t get hit to bad.

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