Spring gets crazy here in the Midwest. Sometimes we seem to move from winter straight into summer come April or May. Other years, like 2008, we trod ever so slowly through the season, and summerlike temps seem too far away to even imagine. But as frustrating as the lingering cold weather is to us, it’s even worse on our gardens.

Japanese Maple

This is how my Japanese maple should look – flush with lovely red color all over!

Photo Credit: Sarah Landicho

Sickly Japanese Maple

This is my sickly Japanese maple – struggling to hold onto its leaves and branches.

Photo Credit: Sarah Landicho

Forest Pansy Redbud

Delicate little flowers are supposed to cover the branches of ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud in spring.

Photo Credit: Sarah Landicho

Sickly Redbud

Not only did my ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud not flower this year, some branches didn’t even produce leaf buds and seemingly died.

Photo Credit: Sarah Landicho

Take for example two of my favorite trees: Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) and ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’). I’ve got one of each planted out in front of my house. My Japanese maple is now 4 years old, and my redbud (a memorial tree planted in honor of my dad) will turn 1 in my garden this fall. Chicago winters have been bad before, but this past one and our really (really) late spring have done my trees wrong.

Winter dieback isn’t uncommon in my neck of the woods. And it seems like some of the branches on both my trees succumbed to the cold. (This is the second time for my Japanese maple – I lost its original leader two winters ago.) There’s not much I can do about that now, but when winter rears its ugly head once again, I can make sure there’s a good 2-inch layer of mulch at the bases of my trees for insulation, as well as keep both well-watered whenever temps rise above freezing.

The second problem my two trees are facing is late-freeze damage. We did have a couple of below-freezing nights late in the season that zapped some emerging leaves. In fact, my redbud didn’t even flower this year. (A local nursery professional suspects the buds literally froze off and blew away – not terribly uncommon.) While I do have some leaves that have emerged nicely, my trees also have some limp leaflets trying to force their way into the sunshine ever so slowly – some currently wilting in our steadily below-average temperatures. There are also some buds that are trying to break, but they just don’t seem to have the will. So basically what I’m left with are two scraggy-looking specimens.

So I asked the professionals what to do. Their advice: Beef up the soil around the trees, adding a nice layer of compost around their drip lines; fertilize – but not too heavily (neither tree will prosper with overfertilization); and make sure I’ve got that nice 2-inch layer of mulch surrounding the base of each tree – but not up against the trunks’ bark, so that means digging my finger in around the base of the trunks and creating a ring of space.

Watering is also important. Even though we’ve had plenty of rain this spring, my trees still need water. But it’s a careful balance – not too much and not too little. So the professionals recommended that I feel the soil. It shouldn’t feel too dry or too wet. And while the trees need consistent moisture, they shouldn’t need more than one solid drink of water from the end of the hose a week.

Of course, now isn’t the time to go snapping or pruning off any “dead” branches. I need to wait until my young trees are completely flushed out in growth before deciding which twigs and branches are truly dead. But I can still check to see which branches are pretty much goners and which ones I should leave alone (and say a little prayer for). Checking is easy: Just use a fingernail to scratch back a little of the bark on a seemingly dead branch – if there’s no green, that’s the green light to prune it off in early summer. But if there’s indeed green wood, there’s still life in that branch yet! With the right care (and a not-so-rough next winter and spring), it could just bounce back next year.

But there’s yet another problem I’ve been told to keep an eye out for this spring: cracking bark. Both the young maple and redbud have smooth, thin bark. If they’re given southern exposure (like my trees) or are sited in a lot of direct sun, the bark can heat up more quickly than the entire tree, so you can get cracking down the trunk. This not only weakens the tree structurally, it gives pests and diseases an open invitation. The best way to prevent this is to try to plant thin-barked young trees (especially maples) where they won’t be able to soak up too much sun and heat in their bark. If this isn’t possible, consider using tree wrap to insulate the bark against cracking – at least through its first and second winters and springs. As the trees age and the bark thickens, the cracking is far less likely to happen.

The good news is that despite the crazy weather we’ve been having this spring, most of my other plants fared just fine. Some are even doing better than usual in the cool climate – but few plants are as important to me as these two specimens – the crowning jewels of my front yard garden. I’m hoping with the right care, they’ll bounce back and reign supreme in my landscape for years to come.