Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
December, 2000
Regional Report

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Nandinas produce beautiful clusters of berries prized by cedar waxwings in their annual migration.

Preventing A Freeze

Our lower-south winters consist of a series of brief and erratic breaks in an otherwise long growing season that stretches from fall to spring. We live between the northern zones, where there is a REAL winter season each year, and the subtropics, where freezing weather rarely if ever arrives. As a result, our landscape includes many plants that are marginally hardy and need some help to make it through an unusually cold winter.

Developing Hardiness

To develop maximum hardiness, our plants need the weather to become progressively colder over time. Warm days followed by a really cold snap are a recipe for serious plant injury.

Each year as cold weather threatens, we go to great (and often strange) lengths to safeguard our plants from cold damage. Container plants are especially susceptible to a bitter cold snap. To protect my container plants, I group them close together in a protected location up against the house.

Tuck Them In

On a very cold night, I'll cover marginally hardy container and in-ground plants with old blankets or spunbound polyester fabric. Sometimes I'll also place a sheet of plastic over a blanket to help hold the warm air underneath. Don't allow the plastic to contact the plant's leaves, however, or it can burn them.

Blankets keep plants warm by trapping heat given off by the soil. They should go over the plants and drape to the ground, therefore, rather than being wrapped around the plant and tied to the trunk. Plants covered that way often look like landscape lollipops and aren't well protected.

Provide Adequate Moisture

When our soil gets on the dry side, I give plants a good watering a day or so in advance of a freeze. Drought-stressed plants are more susceptible to cold injury. The moist soil is also a good "heat sink," absorbing heat during the day and radiating it slowly on a cold night. Combined with a cover, it can make a small but important difference.

Of course, we must take care not to overwater plants and create a waterlogged soil condition. Soil dries out more slowly in winter, and soggy soil excludes oxygen from the roots, often resulting in root damage and root-rotting fungi. Contrary to some folks' opinions, sprinkling the foliage and branches of plants with water prior to a freeze does not help protect them.

Finally, Mulch

I also pile leaves around perennial plants. A thick blanket of leaves can help protect marginal perennials such as butterfly ginger (Hedychium), esperanza (Tecoma stans), and firebush (Hamelia patens). The plants are well worth the extra effort to help them make it through the winter.

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