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The big bad Polar Vortex – a large-scale cyclone circling the North Pole (2014)

Do you have brown, yellow, reddish, or off colored needles on your evergreens (Juniper, Pine, Spruce, or Yew)? Do you see the damage mostly on the tips of the branches or perhaps the entire plant? We are hearing and seeing a lot of early signs of damaged evergreens from the Polar Vortex (PV) that hit Billings mid-November.  Even though it is unusual to see the damage from cold and wind this early, more may show up later. Either way, DO NOT remove the plants yet.

Polar Vortex

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I suspect that the reason so much damage occurred was due to our long warm and dry fall leading up to sub-zero temperatures and high winds. According to Weather Underground,

 the high temperature was 53° F on Sunday. By Monday it dropped to 10° and by Tuesday it was -1° without wind chills. With only a few days below freezing leading up to the storm, plants were not able to fully harden off which made them susceptible to the cold. Tack on winds in excess of 30mph and the damage grew. I believe the wind is why most of damage seems to be on the east and south sides of plants. Interestingly, many plants did not receive much if any damage that were close to the west and north side of structures.

So what can you do to prevent damage like this next year? A couple of things are important and should be practiced annually. First, water well in the fall. It is critical for evergreens to get plenty of water leading up to winter especially, when the area has a long warm fall.  Many people fail to remember to water after blowing out their irrigation in September or October.  I generally do not blow out my irrigation system until November. Although watering would not have prevented the burning this fall, it creates a healthier plant which in turn increases the likelihood of surviving through the extreme weather we saw in November.  Second, apply an anti-desiccant such as Wilt-Stop or Wilt-Pruf. Ideally, they should be applied around Thanksgiving, but possibly sooner if below freezing temperatures are expected. These products are wax based and coat the needles minimizing transpiration (moisture loss). This product most likely would have reduced if not prevented the needle burn. However, as early as this storm hit, a second application needed to be done sometime in January (this may have been difficult as it must be above 40 degrees to be applied).

Do not fret, as there is still hope for your burnt plants.  The main thing now is to manage the damage.  In early spring, fertilize your plants (use a high nitrogen fertilizer such as Miracid); generally this can be done in March or April.  Many will come out of this okay, but you will need to be patient.  Be on the lookout sometime in late May to mid-June for new growth.  If the plant is going to survive, then it will push out new candles (new growth) which will make the plant green again.  Keep an eye on them and follow the above suggestions and they will most likely survive any harsh Montana weather!

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