Florida is a great state in which to live; you can wear shorts, eat ice cream, and enjoy the great outdoors year-round. You can also grow plants all year long, provided you watch the weather reports and prepare for the occasional cold snap that may happen this time of year. Unfortunately, those beautiful tropicals and sub-tropicals that everyone loves to plant are susceptible to cold damage, so it’s necessary to know the right and the wrong ways to not only protect plants from the cold, but care for them afterwards if they do get cold damage.
Life Imitating Art… or is that Flora?
A common trend of most Floridians is the combination of wearing shorts with a sweater or jacket when it starts to get cooler. Nevertheless, this fashion faux pas makes for a great comparison of how plants may feel when the temperature starts to drop. By maintaining a 3” layer of mulch over the soil in your landscaped beds, the roots of plants may not notice the cool weather as much as their above-ground counterparts, the leaves and stems, which need to be protected from heat loss.
Most plant damage can be minimized by reducing radiant heat loss from the plant and the soil surface. It’s important to stock up on sheets, freeze cloth, and light blankets to cover any cold sensitive plants you may want to protect. Be sure to cover plants all the way to the ground to trap enough heat to last throughout the night, and remember to remove the coverings when temperatures rise above freezing.
Another common observation is that Floridians carrying a few extra pounds around their waistlines don’t “feel” the cold the way others might. Plants that are well-fed (healthy) – in the form of water and proper nutrients (fertilizer) – throughout the year tend to survive lower temperatures and recover faster from cold injury. Keep in mind that plants are still growing during winter months, but at a slower rate, so you still need to maintain a proper schedule and rate of fertilization and watering.
While a cool breeze is a welcome relief at the height of a steamy Florida summer, it can cause even the most seasoned Floridian to hunker down and cringe when it’s cold outside. Windbreaks may offer a great deal of protection to plants in hard freezes that are accompanied by wind. Consider the placement of plants in your yard in relation to outdoor structures, tree canopies, and walls of your house; survival may depend on as little as six feet and a fence. If possible, gather up all your potted plants and place them close together before covering them up to reduce heat loss from container side walls. Placing a light bulb or string of Christmas lights under the cover will provide some additional heat.
Haute Horticulture versus Real Life
A common practice in commercial farms in anticipation of freezing temperatures is to run the irrigation system to wet the plants so that the continuous freezing of water on the plants and the resulting release of heat keeps plant cells at a temperature just above freezing. This can only work with a continuous flow of copious amounts of water, and residential sprinkler systems are not capable of doing this successfully. So while the agricultural industry can utilize this behavior to save millions of dollars in crops, the only results for the typical homeowner are lots of water waste, a potentially exorbitant water bill, and the risk of greater damage to plants than if nothing was done at all.
The Morning After… It’s Just a Waiting Game
Depending on the severity of the freeze and the specific plants in your yard, it may be necessary to do a botanical triage to assess the best recovery plan for your landscape. The most important first step is to check your plants’ water needs after a freeze. If the sun is shining, leaves may be losing water to transpiration, but the water in the soil may still be frozen and unavailable to the plants. Water plants to thaw the soil and replace the water being lost through the leaves.
The typical reaction of most Floridians after a freeze is to hack off all the freeze-damaged limbs the next day, but keep in mind that the weather in our fair state is about as finicky as our voting machines. Keeping some of that dead or dying material on the plant during a successive freeze will help to protect the undamaged parts if/when the next unseasonable freeze rears its ugly head. Severe pruning should be delayed until new growth appears and there is no longer a risk of freeze.
Don’t try to save damaged annuals or vegetables; they’re inexpensive and easy to replace. Damaged areas of turf will return as the weather warms up enough to promote new growth. Most perennials will die back to the ground, but there is a good chance that new growth will start up from the roots.
The best advice I can offer when it comes to cold weather and your landscape is this: Prepare well with proper plant choices and cultural practices; stock up on protective cloths to help plants ride out the storm; and exhibit pruning patience while waiting for warmer days and new growth.
For more information on freeze protection and caring for plants with freeze damage, contact your local county Extension Service or visit http://solutionsforyourlife.com.