By Sally Pearsall Ericson, Director of Marketing and Public Relations
We’ve certainly had a chilly start to 2018. Chuck Owens, Nursery Manager at Bellingrath Gardens and Home, offers his advice to help Gulf Coast gardeners cope with the low temperatures. “This has been very unusual, to have four to five days of below-freezing temperatures for up to 10 hours a day,” he noted. Here are his answers to general questions on winter gardening.
Q. How much pruning should I do right now?
A. Be patient. There’s no immediate need to do anything after a hard freeze. You’ll have some plants that are obviously dead, of course. If you’ve still got a few herbaceous annuals left over from the fall (chrysanthemums, coleus, tropicals and the like), those won’t come back, and you can go ahead and get rid of them, or at least remove obviously dead leaves and stems. However, some plants may be damaged but will still recover, such as banana trees. The leaves are burned, but depending on the severity of the cold, the trunk of the plant may still be alive, and you’ll want to wait a few weeks to find out for sure. Once we get past our last frost date, you’ll want to cut your banana plants back until you find green tissue, in order to make room for new growth.
Q. How can I tell if my plants are damaged?
A. It’s really too early to tell right now, but in a few weeks, as we get closer to spring, take a look at the buds on your azaleas and camellias. The buds are covered with protective scales. If you dissect a couple of buds and see green inside, they should be OK. A couple of years ago, we saw quite a few damaged flower buds after severe winter weather. You could almost break them off in your hand, and the interior of the bud was brown.
Q. How can I protect my plants if we get another cold snap?
A. On the Gulf Coast, you’ll see a lot of gardeners using non-cold-hardy and tropical plants, because of our moderate climate. We like tropicals because they’re pretty, but if you plant them, you’ve got to take measures to protect them, or be prepared to lose them entirely in weather like this.
It’s a good idea to cover your plants, but only if you use the right material. Old sheets are fine; just make sure that whatever you use is porous, and make sure the cover is not touching the foliage and goes all the way to the ground to trap the heat from the soil. At Bellingrath, we use frost cloth, which is a woven fabric. It protects against frost and will trap some heat, but will allow some of the excess heat to escape during the day. It’s available at most garden centers.
Don’t use tarps or plastic trash bags, because they will trap too much heat and damage the plant. If you cover your plants at night, try to uncover them during the day if the temperatures rise above freezing. Think of it as creating a dome to capture the heat.
Q. What about using extra mulch?
A. Mulch is fine, but I think it’s better to use mulch during the warmer months instead of adding more of it for cold-weather protection. For example, it’s not a good idea to pile mulch up against the trunks of trees, because it traps moisture. Mulch can prevent the ground from collecting as much heat as it should. Bare soil will heat up faster than covered soil. I’ve learned about this from my citrus farm – 1 or 2 degrees can make a big difference in citrus farming. You want that soil to be in contact with the sun.
When it’s warmer outside, mulch is good for keeping down weeds and conserving moisture. It also keeps roots cooler in the heat of the summer. Overall, if used the right way, mulch is a good protector and prevents the soil from going to extremes in temperature.
Q. Could you recommend some cold-hardy plants?
A. At Bellingrath, we use several ornamentals in the winter beds – Dusty Miller, kale and cabbages. We also use parsley, because it withstands cold temperatures well. Violas, pansies and dianthus are great for cold-weather blooms.
Bring your questions about winter gardening to our Winter Garden Walk on Wednesday, January 10, 2018, at 10:30 AM. Register by calling 251-459-8727, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chuck Owens is the Nursery Manager and Manager of Maintenance at Bellingrath Gardens and Home, where he has been employed since 1998. He is a native of Decatur, Ala., and a graduate of Auburn University in Landscape and Ornamental Horticulture.