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Five tips to prepare plants for freeze warnings

Posted: November 30, 2010 4:51 p.m.
Updated: December 1, 2010 5:00 a.m.

The dog days of summer are now a distant memory as we zoom through autumn and brace for winter temperatures. Even though many folks do not like cooler weather, it is easy enough for us to stay warm by adding layers of clothing and getting the wool sweaters out of mothball storage.

But what do the plants and trees do to stay warm against the freeze of Jack Frost?  As the day light grows shorter and the nighttime temperatures begin to fall, specific plant hormones are activated. These hormones trigger bio-chemical reactions and signal plants to shed their leaves and prepare for dormancy. For most of our native and established-in-the-landscape shrubs, plants, and trees this is part of Mother Nature’s natural cycle of life.

Alas, many of the plants we have in our home landscape or in containers on our patios and decks are “not from around here” and as such may not be used to preparing for the winter. So, short of turning your living room into a greenhouse, what should you do to protect these plants from the cold nights? Below are some suggestions.1

1. Continue (or start) to water and mulch. Dry plants suffer against the cold more than well-hydrated ones, so be sure to water them (like now) before the temperatures really plunge. In addition, any type of organic mulch such as grass/leaf clippings, pine straw or my personal favorite, shredded hardwood mulch will help keep the soil temperature a little warmer. 

2. Cut the bottom off a gallon milk jug and place it over small, delicate plants. This will help provide a barrier against frost and hold in the plant’s heat. In addition, it will keep the plastic from going into the landfill. Hopefully, you normally recycle though, right?

3. Never plant vegetables in the lowest part of your yard because cold air settles in low-lying areas. Cool-season veggies should be sited in an area that receives good sunlight and is on higher ground to avoid early frost damage.

4. Have covers on hand such as sheets for shrubs with buds or blooms, floating row cover for crops in your vegetable gardens and exotic plants in containers. I prefer to use fabric (old sheets, old shower curtains, old towels and old drop cloths) as opposed to plastic. Cloth allows the plant to breathe and not accumulate water vapor from within, which may end up freezing.

5. Do not wash frost off plants the morning after a freeze because it raises the temperature too quickly and usually damages cell tissue. The best thing in this case is to let it be or if the plant is moveable, place it where the sun can warm up the plant over the course of the day.  

With these tips at hand hopefully your plants will weather this transition time into winter without any frostbite!


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