Though the October rains are still warm, sudden cold can swoop down from the North overnight, leaving frozen hoses, broken pots, and damaged plants in its wake. Before you move to that armchair for the winter, take a few minutes to get ready for the coming cold. Open all hose stops to release any stored water, since hoses that freeze when still full may burst. This can be a very exciting experience but I can assure you that you won’t feel short changed if your life does not include it.
One year a frozen hose blew off the garage wall, followed by enormous gouts of water gushing all over the driveway, which promptly froze solid. Fortunately I was home and noticed the noise, and even more fortunately I knew where the water shut off valve is located…. Anyway, instead of allowing that to happen to you, just drain and coil up your hoses and store them in the shed or garage where they won’t freeze. You might also sand and oil your tool handles and clean the blades free of mud. If you are feeling frisky, take a bastard file and restore a sharp edge on shovels, hoes, and edging tools (it’s kind of fun).
Protect Those Precious Pots
Drain and wash out plant pot saucers and stack them under cover where you’ll find them quickly next summer. Drain water jars and set them upside down or place them on their sides to keep them empty. Pots without drain holes are often subject to frost damage, particularly those with inward-sloping sides. If the tops are smaller than the bottoms or middles, when the water in them freezes, the slim tops simply pop off, making for very expensive pot shards (ask me how I know). Once drained, cover any containers that must remain upright with slate tiles or inverted saucers to keep them from refilling with rain.
Terra cotta pots, plaques, and ornaments should be stored in a shed or garage to keep them dry and free from frost. Even mild freezes can cause flaking, chipping, and splitting of soft clay when it is saturated with water. When stored dry, as in a cold garage, the frost won’t harm them. High fired terra cotta is less susceptible to winter damage but still should be protected just in case (especially given its high price tag).
Set all planted pots that remain outside on two or three pieces of wood, so they are up off the deck or terrace. Large, glazed Thai pots are winter safe if they are well filled with plants and soil. In all the years I have used them, I have never once lost a pot that housed plants as long as the drain hole remained unblocked, though I have more than once had a water jar break in a severe and sudden cold snap. Potting soil and plant roots expand less dramatically than ice when frozen, so planted pots aren’t cracked in half by frost as water jars can be.
Plant Protections May Help Or Harm
Back East, it is customary to wrap plants well with plastic or burlap as winter approaches, to guard them from windburn and frostbite. However, in milder climates such as the coastal Northwest, such precautionary treatments may prove fatal. Here, the near-constant cloud cover keeps even the night air relatively warm, encouraging molds and mildews. When sudden cold comes, the damp and dripping bundled plants can freeze in their wrappings.
What works better? While trimming the house for the holidays, keep a few blown-down evergreen boughs on hand. These provide light but effective cover for new transplants as well as borderline hardy plants like tender Spanish lavenders and prostrate rosemaries. When clear skies and cold nights threaten, set boughs over those vulnerable plants to keep frost at bay. Shrubby hebes (Hebe species), New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax), and South African honeybush (Melianthus major) are all top candidates for protection. When rains return or thaws set in, remove the branches to promote good air circulation and store them for the next cold snap.
Protecting The Young And The Tender
Bales of straw and bags of dry leaves also make excellent insulation for anything that was planted last summer or fall, so keep a few on hand in the shed or garage. New transplants have young and tender root systems that can be hard hit by deep freezes. If severe weather arrives this winter and you have supplies on hand, you will be able protect your plants quickly when the need arises.
Like plastic wrap, deep mulches of leaves or straw provide protection from cold but they too can cause damage if piled on too high and too soon. Here again, molds and mildews can be a problem on plants smothered under deep, wet mulches. Even when dry, very deep, loose mulches can harbor mice, voles, and other critters who love to nest where they are guaranteed a good meal of roots and young shoots. Thus, use such deep mulches sparingly and only in need, and remove them when the need is past. To keep hungry critters from nesting, thickly scatter ground up hot chili peppers around your plants before layering on the mulches.
Ordinary fall or winter mulches of 3-4 inches of compost are not a threat in this regard and won’t cause your plants any harm. Indeed, the winter rains will soon be leaching valuable nutrients from the compost down to hungry plant roots, which are actively feeding and growing all during the slow, quiet months. If you have already applied such a mulch, that is all most plants will need.
As a final precautionary measure, scatter some ecologically safe slug bait such as Worry Free or Sluggo around bulbs, hostas, and any plant that might get nibbled. If the winter remains mild, slugs may awaken early and breakfast on the resting rosettes of many plants even before plant crowns fully emerge in spring