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Minimizing Winter Damage
by Brian Minter
by Brian Minter


Brian is President of Minter Country Garden, an innovative destination garden center and greenhouse growing operation. He is a gardening columnist, radio host, international speaker and author.

His website is located at

December 27, 2009

Thanks to a sudden shift from daily rain to cooler weather, we should be thinking about preparing our plants for winter, just in case we have a repeat of last year’s bitter cold. Severe weather is a fact of gardening life, but we can take some steps to minimize the affects.

The first suggestion I would like to make pertains to hardiness. Most of us know which hardiness zone we live in and should consider planting mostly those plants which will tolerate this zone. Certainly slight variations will exist, but as a rule of thumb, most of the plants zoned for this region will take the worst most winters have to offer, even last year. If you don't know your zone, you can easily find out from a local nursery. From experience I know that while good gardeners pay much attention to zones, they also rely on their instincts. Virtually all gardeners set out plants they know are not hardy in their region, but they insist that with a little extra protection these plants will survive. Unfortunately, that protection is not always applied until it's too late.

There are some techniques that can add a few degrees of hardiness to many plants. One thing I noticed after a severe cold spell last December was that plants growing in very well-drained sandy soil survived the cold with the least amount of damage. It seems that if a plant's roots have had to work harder for moisture and food, the plant is tougher and stops growing earlier in the fall. As a consequence, its branches and buds become dormant earlier, preventing severe damage from the cold. These plants also tend to stay dormant longer and suffer far less root damage because with a lower moisture content, the soil is not moved about so much by the frost. Planting all your plants, particularly the softer ones, in well-drained sandy loam is a sure way to toughen them up.

A further protection for more tender plants is a good mulching with fir or hemlock bark mulch or even with sawdust. Mulching makes an incredible difference both in summer and winter. It retains critical moisture necessary at both times of the year and is a fabulous insulator.

Immediately after a cold spell when the temperature is on the rise and the frost is coming out of the ground, it's essential to get moisture back into our plants. Soak the living daylights out of the foliage of broadleaved plants and thoroughly penetrate the root system with water. A good watering can really make quite a difference to the amount of damage as rehydration takes place. Rain is a blessing but under our eaves we need to water.

Desiccation from cold, drying winter winds is another major problem. As if the severe wind on our poor broadleaved plants, like aucubas, photinias, rhododendrons and azaleas, is not bad enough, winter sunshine can really burn them. Not only is it important to create wind breaks around our plants, but it's also essential to protect the more tender ones, like fatsias, from the sun in winter. Often the easiest way to do this is by putting up some temporary plastic snow fencing.

Tender plants, like Basjoo bananas and Dutch Windmill palms, will survive if they’ve had proper protection and insulation. The lucky feature for established bananas is, even if the tops are frozen, they will send up new shoots from the bottom. Palms present a different situation. If the main stem, crown and leaves are wrapped and insulated, they will take amazing cold. Left unprotected or simply wrapped with a non-insulating material, they many not make it through in the coldest areas of the eastern Valley. It’s a wait and see situation.

Our containers really got hooped last year. Remember, most hardy outdoor containers will tolerate only –8° or -10°C without damage, so they must be either put in a protected cool area, like a garage, or be insulated properly with actual household insulation to make sure they survive. Don’t forget to water them, and also make sure the soil doesn’t try out too much.

Experiencing numerous years of cold winters in our gardens has taught us many good lessons. First and foremost, never let your guard down. A couple of years of mild winters can lull us into winter complacency. Make sure you always prepare the appropriate winter protection. Finally, cold winters are just a part of the gardening cycle. Passionate gardeners will keep on planting tender plants - losing a few is part of the learning curve we all go through.

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