Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
December, 2001
Regional Report

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These cactus are dressed for cold weather. The cups will protect the growing tips.

Frost Watch

Mid December is the beginning of frost season. I remember very well the winter of 1989 when I was working as a gardener at Sunset Magazine in Menlo Park. The whole company was enjoying the annual Christmas party when the temperature started to drop. Everyone was sipping on champagne and didn't feel the cold. Since I was the gardener on call for the holiday weekend, I asked one of the other partygoers to help me cover the giant bougainvillea on the courtyard patio and pull the 30-plus poinsettia pots under the eves of the buildings. Then I watered the nursery in my holiday finery and staggered home.

The temperatures continued dropping. It was clear and cold and, unfortunately, I never thought another thing about the many citrus trees on the property, a mistake that I heard about loudly the following Monday morning. Luckily, the head gardener was much more frost savvy than I, and he came in all alone to cover the trees with burlap. They survived, but not without damage. The low that night was 18 degrees.

Lessons Learned

This is the lesson I learned that year: When winter days are clear, smoke rises straight up from the chimneys indicating no wind, and the weatherman predicts frost, it's time for gardeners to go to work! The first thing you should do is to go outside and water everything. Believe it or not, a well-watered plant will not freeze as quickly as a thirsty one. The roots take up water, causing the individual cells in the foliage plump up. Wilted or thirsty foliage will be much more susceptible to frost damage. It is especially important to water citrus plants before a frost, as I learned the hard way.

Move Tender Plants

Move any frost tender container plants under the eves of buildings or under the protection of trees. A south-facing wall will provide protection from cold even if there is no overhang. Cyclamen and pansies don't need any special care. They can be frozen stiff as little soldiers and as long as you don't touch the foliage or flowers while they are frozen, they will recover nicely as soon as the sun warms them again.

Cactus Caps

Cactus can be protected from freezing by simply placing paper cups over the growing tips -- the area most susceptible to frost damage. Besides, they look delightful in their silly winter caps. Remove the caps after the dew has dried in the morning.

Most of the landscape shrubs that we use in our gardens here are impervious to frost damage. However, if you have tender plants such as fuchsias in your garden, you may wish to cover them with cardboard boxes. Agapanthus may freeze down to the ground, but don't worry, you couldn't kill it even if you wanted to. They will return next spring even if they turn to black mush.

Do not prune frost-damaged plants. Pruning encourages new growth that may be nipped by frosts later in the season. Also, the withered foliage will actually protect undamaged wood. Don't throw anything away even if you think it's dead. I knew a lady who collected cymbidium orchids and had over 100 magnificent plants in her collection. After the frost of '89, she threw them all out except for a few she wanted to keep for the containers. Those few recovered as soon as the weather warmed in the spring and she was heartsick with unnecessary loss of her collection.

Don't walk on the grass, even though it looks like an irresistible winter wonderland. Your footsteps will crush and burst the frozen cells in the blades of grass causing black footprints all across the turf for weeks.

Keep your eyes and ears open and spring to action at the first hint of cold weather. And one more thing: Please keep a birdbath full of clean water and keep the birdfeeders stocked during the winter. Your feathered friends will thank you!

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