Keeping Plants Alive In a Frosty Battlefield


As winter casts its icy spell over the region, the news is filled with reports of freezing temperatures that make us shiver. Amidst the concern for our own well-being, it’s easy to overlook the battle for survival that is happening for our green pals.

Cold injury is not one-size fits all.  It depends on the plant species, age, vigor, and soil characteristics. You may not see the damage done until spring with the emergence of new growth. If the spring is mild, the visible damage may go unnoticed, creating a deceptive disconnect between the frozen winter and its aftermath.

Mother Nature, however, has its own defense mechanisms. Snow, often seen as an inconvenience for us, acts as a natural insulator that shields root systems from the harsh cold. The survivability of plants depends on the extent of root damage. Roots, being less hardy than shoots, are vulnerable, particularly the feeder roots closest to the soil surface. The soil itself contributes to insulation, usually providing sufficient protection. The damage done depends on root hardiness, depth, soil texture, and the presence or absence of mulch.

Come spring, the aftermath becomes evident. Winter-damaged plants are slow to start growing and show signs of distorted growth, shoot and branch dieback, and the lack of flower buds and leaves. This poses a challenge, with a few options. Pruning out dead portions of affected plants becomes essential, along with providing adequate water and mulch. Contrary to common belief, do not add fertilizer.  This adds too much stress for good growth and is harmful.

Some useful tips for preserving plants in cold weather include:

  • Protective Covering: Consider covering sensitive plants with frost cloth or burlap during extreme cold spells.
  • Mulching: Apply a thick layer of mulch around the base of plants to insulate the soil and protect roots from freezing temperatures.
  • Watering Strategies: Ensure plants are well-hydrated before a cold snap, as hydrated plants are better equipped to withstand freezing conditions.
  • Windbreaks: Install temporary windbreaks to shield plants from harsh winds that can exacerbate cold damage.
  • Avoid Pruning in Fall: Refrain from heavy pruning in the fall, as new growth may be more susceptible to winter damage.
  • Potted Plants Indoors: Bring potted plants indoors during severe cold spells to shield them from extreme temperatures.

Get outdoors and scout for signs of damage among your garden plants this winter. Keeping a keen eye on your outdoor landscape this winter will help your garden succeed this spring and minimize loss of plants due to the extreme cold we are currently experiencing early on this winter.

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