Man, has it been cold this week -- our first really cold weather this fall. Depending on where you live, you may have had annual and perennial flowers and summer vegetables still living until Wednesday morning of last week. I was still harvesting bell peppers and tomatoes. That frost got just the top of my tomatoes, but Monday morning's cold finished them off.
When we get really cold weather that drops below freezing you will see some people throw a sheet, blanket or plastic over the top of some plants. Covering these plants to protect them may make you feel better, but unless you find a way to anchor the covering, it won't keep them warm.
People have the illusion that the covering is going to keep a plant warm like it does us. We are warm blooded and create heat -- plants don't. The only heat available under the covering would what's rising from the soil.
Even if covering did work, the wind usually works against you by blowing your hard work away. Plus, using a blanket to cover plants can also result in broken limbs, because it can be fairly heavy. You have to weigh the risks. If you put up a large enough structure that will block the wind, it would help. Then you've all but built a mini-greenhouse.
If you really want to protect your outdoor plants from the cold, the time to start is in the spring and summer. If you take good care of your plants in the warm months by keeping them insect and disease free, giving them ample water and fertilizing them, you're helping build a hardier plant.
Also, if you water your plants really well before a good freeze (in the absence of rain), this really helps protect them. A well-hydrated plant can take cold a lot better than a dehydrated plant.
Because outdoor plants are out in the elements 24 hours a day, they adapt to temperature changes. When cold weather arrives, it's not a shock to them because they have gradually prepared for it. Potentially, temperatures that drop below 20 degrees could damage the stem tissues in some of our landscape plants. Many times it depends on where they are located in the landscape and how well they are hydrated. Of course this can happen at other times as we get into the dead of winter but this is a chance we are willing to take.
If you want to "baby" your plants, save the special treatment for prized possessions such as a banana tree or something similar. Even with the size of a banana tree, that would be hard to do. If it's a one-of-a-kind plant and you really don't want to lose it, build a makeshift shelter for it.
Container plants are the ones that need the most babying. Container plants are more susceptible to cold because their roots are more exposed.
You can protect your container plants in several ways. Place them inside your home, garage, greenhouse or shed. Don't try to save ferns by putting them in your house all winter because by the time next spring arrives, you won't have much of a plant left.
With ferns, you can do like as I do. I have two on my front porch, which faces south, and they are under an overhang. I leave them outside unless it is going to drop into the 20s or below. If that happens, I put them in my garage. I don't have to do that often and they don't get dry heat in the garage like they would in my house.
You can also push container plants together and mulch or cover the sides of the containers to reduce the heat loss.
Plants growing close to the ground benefit from the heat radiating from the soil. Tall and more open plants don't receive as much heat and are not as protected from the cold as shorter ones.
Sometimes you won't truly know whether your protective efforts were successful until spring arrives. Plants with cold-damaged roots may not show signs of injury until temperatures rise and the plant's demand for water from the roots is greater.
The overall key to making sure your landscape plants survive each winter is planting the right variety from the start. Don't just buy a cultivar of azalea or other woody ornamental you think would do well in your landscape. Do a little research and make sure the plant you are buying is suited to our area.
And don't think that just because a plant is sold in the big-box stores that it is cold hardy for our area.
One time I talked with a lady who thought that someone had sprayed her plant with Roundup or some other nonselective herbicide because most of it died. It turned out it was simply a plant that could not take the frost.
She thought that just because she bought it in town, it would be cold hardy in the Augusta area.
REACH SID MULLIS, THE DIRECTOR OF THE UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA EXTENSION SERVICE OFFICE FOR RICHMOND COUNTY, AT (706) 821-2349 OR SMULLIS@UGA.EDU.