Cold Comfort For Plants

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Yes Baby It’s Cold Outside

January can be the month of truth for Northwestern gardeners. Early winter can open so mildly that we forget our proximity to Alaska. Indeed, a given January may be as gentle as June (which really doesn’t say much for a Northwestern June). However, January can also be a month of wild wind and sudden cold snaps.

Not knowing which kind of January is coming keeps us on our toes. As the New Year evolves, gardeners get a bit fidgety, eying the calendar as if January were a gift from an eccentric uncle with a highly unreliable sense of humor. Today, for example, I woke to four inches of snow, yet the forecast calls for warm rain tomorrow. Hmmm.

Tried But Not True

One difficulty is that many traditional plant protections are utterly suitable for truly cold winters yet can create problems in more moderate years. For instance, if we suspect a chilly winter is coming, we may carefully bundle all our tender shrubs in straw and swaddle our roses in burlap and heavy plastic wraps.

If we guess wrong, warm winter days can encourage a deadly crop of root rots, molds, and mildews. We may also uncover the plants when frost danger is past, only to discover that we have made a lovely winter home for mice, who regard tender roots and shoots as splendid snacks.

Try This Instead

When cold fronts threaten, here are a few hot tips for safe and temporary plant protection.  First, cover the bottom foot or so of any new plants and all tender shrubs like tea roses, mounding aged manure and compost over the graft point for extra protection. Stash a few bags of both manure and compost someplace where they won’t freeze, for just such an occasion.  Large trash bags full of well dried leaves and dry bales of straw are equally valuable for last minute protection.

The thrifty gardener will also make full use of the holiday trees that are tossed out at the New Year. Trim off the long side branches and heap them lightly over newly planted perennials or early blooming bulbs. The branches will catch the cold and supply a few precious degrees of frost protection for tender plants that tend to get nipped in the bud.

Row Cover For Trees?

If you have fruit trees or magnolias that often lose their bloom to sharp frosts, invest in a few large sheets of Reemay or any lightweight, translucent plant cloth. Toss one over each tree when the cold blue Northerns are due, tying a few stones into the fabric’s corners for ballast. Even if the wind whips the cloth around, you’ll generally end up with more unfrosted buds than if the trees are left unprotected.

In a pinch, even an old bed sheet or quilt can make the difference between a dead plant and a shaken but still living one. You don’t want to burden small plants with heavy blankets that, coupled with the weight of sodden Northwestern snow, might crush their stems and branches. Still, a light covering can conserve a surprising amount of warmth. Quite often, just a few degrees will be enough to keep borderline tender plants on this side of heaven.

What’s In The Pantry?

Like good cooks, good gardeners keep their storage cupboards well stocked. Just/ as cooks never know when company might come, gardeners can’t know when temperatures might plummet overnight. If you are well prepared, the unexpected is more of an annoyance than cause for panic.

Do, however, remove the less attractive of your emergency coverings as soon as the weather improves. Otherwise, you run the risk of having your garden look like a rummage sale run wild. Should the weather fluctuate, you may simply decide to tie up all those flapping sheets with large velvet ribbons in tasteful colors (plaids are nice with snow). After all, there could be a change in the weather any day….

Tool of Which Trade?

Gardeners in uncertain climates like ours need to have a few good tricks up their sleeves so they can cope with any sort of weather. First on your emergency list is a good stockpile of assorted useful materials such as dry leaves and old sheets which you can stash in the basement or garage. One of my favorite emergency rations is inexpensive foam pipe insulation in 2-4 foot lengths. It’s quite handy for moving roses and other prickly plants (think cactus) at any time; just slip a length of foam over thorny stems and presto, no more scratched and bleeding shoulders.

When a cold snap threatens, I slip pieces foam on all my tender shrubs. Pipe insulation makes a terrific jacket for long rose canes. Stack two or three pieces together for those big climbers like ‘Mermaid’ or Lady Banks roses that suffer dreadfully in a prolonged freeze. Pipe insulation also keeps deer from rubbing bark off young fruit trees. (Usually.)

This entry was posted in fall/winter crops, Garden Prep, Sustainable Gardening and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Cold Comfort For Plants

  1. David Starkman says:

    Love your advise and insightful suggestions. Just having moved to Bainbridge, we have a small shady yard compared to most. I need some help with landscaping and was wondering if you had any recommendations for a designer.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi David,

      I’d suggest you contact Steve Minch at Bainbridge Gardens Nursery. We worked together for many years and have similar takes on landscaping. Hope that helps!


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