Protecting Plants From Cold Weather In The South

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This article provides tips and instructions for how to protect outdoor landscape plants from severe winter cold temperature and weather
by Brett · All Zones · Techniques & Methods · 0 Comments · December 19, 2012 · 1,709 views

Protecting Tender Plants From Cold Weather In The South

Where I live and garden in central Georgia there's an old saying that says: "If you don't like the weather one day in Georgia just wait until the next!" This saying probably works for many other states in the South as well, where weather conditions and temperatures can vary daily from one extreme to the other. Weather foecasters aren't so good at forecasting rain but, good thing is, they are quite accurate at getting the temperatures least for 3 or 4 days out.

Depending on the recent weather, these wild temperature fluctuations can wreak havoc on certain plants. Of course, tropical plants, citrus and houseplants are exceptionally vulnerable in regions that experience freezing temperatures. These tender plants should be brought indoors sometime during the fall before night time temperatures fall below 50 degrees F.

Native and other hardy ornamental shrubs and trees usually handle the extremes quite well. Even so, many established landscape ornamental plants can suffer cold damage due to drastic fluctuations in outside temperature. Problems occur when there's a severe cold front that moves through on the heels of what was an unusually long winter warm spell. Warm periods during early- to late-winter can get the juices flowing on some types of plants causing them to produce tender new growth that can be damaged from freezing temperatures. If a considerable amount of new growth has been produced the cold can cause the plant to go into shock, sometimes causing death of the plant.

A gradual decrease in temperature will harden off hardy ornamental plants, allowing them to better withstand freezing temperatures. This is not true for tender plants, because they will not tolerate freezing temperatures regardless of the preceding temperatures.

Here are some tips you can follow to protect your plants...

  1. Avoid fall pruning - Ceasing pruning of any outdoor plants a month and a half or so before the average first-frost date in your area will allow your plants to go into dormancy before cold weather arrives. Pruning plants too late, even hardy ornamental plants, can cause a flush of new growth that will render the plant more susceptible to cold injury.
  2. Apply mulch to plants after the first hard freeze - We put heavier coats on when the weather is freezing, and many plants will appreciate a coat as well...of mulch that is. Mulch helps the soil retain moisture and protects roots against the cold. It also serves as a blanket of insulation that can keep the soil from freezing during periods of extended cold temperatures. Pine straw or shredded wood are perfect mulches to provide some winter protection to the root systems of plants. These and other mulches are readily available at most nursery and garden centers. A 3- to 4-inch layer of pine straw or a 2-inch layer of shredded wood mulch is advised. Mulch should be added around the base of plants. However, to avoid rot damage, be careful not to put the mulch right up against the trunk of the plant or tree.
  3. Move tropical plants to indoor heated spaces before temperatures start dropping below 50 degrees F at night. Remember that the roots of any plant growing outdoors in a container will be exposed to the colder air temperatures. So, in the event that temperatures are to drop well below freezing, consider moving even your hardy ornamentals growing in containers to a protective space, such as a garage or shed. Containers that must be left outdoors should be protected by mulch and pushed together before a freeze to reduce heat loss from the sides of the container. You can also wrap containers with blankets or plastic bubble wrap material. Placing containers against the exterior walls of your home can provide protective radiant heat to plants as well.
  4. Plant coverings, such as cloth and plastic, can also be helpful, but more for protection from a frost than from extreme cold temperatures. We often do this at our nursery and garden center in late winter or early spring when fresh new growth has emerged and there comes a late frost. If you use plastic that is in contact with foliage you'll need to remove it during a sunny day or provide necessary ventilation to release trapped heat.
  5. Deep soak the soil around the roots of landscape plants before a deep freeze. Dry roots are more likely to suffer from cold damage. Well-watered soil is capable of absorbing more solar radiation than dry soil, and will re-radiate heat at night. When freezing temepratures arrive, moisture in the soil will also form an insulating cover around plant roots protecting them at 32 degrees.
  6. Cease fertilization early. Healthy plants that have had proper nutrition will be more tolerant of cold temperatures and recover from injury more rapidly, however you'll want to avoid late fall fertilization or fertilization before unseasonably warm periods.
  7. Know your plants before choosing a location to plant them. Plants known to be tender, such as some varieties of gardenia, palms, fig trees, and camellias (to protect blooms) should be planted in a site that is protected from northern and western winds. This means you'll want to plant them on the south or east side of the home or other structure or in some other protected location, such as a courtyard, where they'll be sheltered from the wind. You can also provide barriers to protect tender plants from cold winds by shielding them with adjacent plantings, fences or buildings.
  8. Remove heavy snow. In the event there is heavy snow use a broom to brush snow off plants that are susceptible to damage.


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