By now you've heard plenty of tips about protecting your plants from the cold. Once the thermometer starts flirting with temperatures of 40 or below, it's time to dig out sheets, blankets, boxes and Christmas lights to help your tender tropicals survive.
But what to do when the weather breaks?
>> Offer a drink
Check the soil or container for dryness and water after a freeze — but be careful not to overwater. If the foliage is covered with frost, you can gently water it to melt the frost, but do this early in the day as you want the leaves dry when the temperature drops again.
Hydration is also one of your best defenses going into a freeze. "Probably the most important thing for people to remember is that plants do much better if they go into cold weather having been watered," says Bill O'Grady of Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg. "You want the leaves to be dry . . . but you want the roots to have been watered earlier in the day so they don't go in thirsty."
But don't try to imitate the strawberry growers who coat their tender plants with a layer of ice. "The best thing a homeowner can do is turn off the sprinkler system on cold nights, when frost is predicted," says Jim Moll, urban horticulture extension agent for Hernando County. "The coating of ice does not protect the plant. It is the constantly freezing water that gives up heat. . . . Water must be constantly supplied in enough quantity. . . . Using water to protect plants is a real science and should be left to the professionals who stay up all night, in the cold, watching sprinklers turn."
>> Put down those clippers
Your plants may look a little wimpy, or sport some brown or dead leaves, but don't start hacking just yet. Wait a couple of weeks or so to give the plants time to seal off damaged tissue and prepare for new growth. Pruning too soon also signals plants to send out tender new growth, which would be all the more vulnerable if frost returns.
"All too often I see people trying to help damaged plants recover by (over)watering, fertilizing them or cutting them down immediately after the cold has damaged the plants," Moll says. "These procedures usually work against the gardener. The best advice I can give is this: If the plant is woody (shrubs like hibiscus or citrus trees), you want to wait to do any pruning until the danger of frost has passed. . . . Then the damage can be assessed and the plant pruned, if needed, to remove dead or damaged portions."
For banana trees, leave the dead leaves in place; they give the tree an extra layer of protection against the cold. Wait until the cold weather is gone for good before you remove them.
Don't panic if your citrus trees drop leaves or some fruit. Dropping leaves is actually a sign that the tree's systems are working properly.
Your lawn may show some effects, but as with other plants, it's best to wait to see if the damage is permanent. If the turf has been hit by frost, it's going to remain brown until spring, no matter the variety, Moll says. Keep grass hydrated, but extra fertilizer and extra water won't turn it green.
>> Don't give up
Some plants or trees will look like goners, but don't be too quick to dig them up. Go for a severe trim, leaving only about 6 inches of material above the level of the soil. You may be surprised: Some plants will come back from this original stalk; others might send new growth out through the roots.
>> In the spring
Wait until you're sure there's no more frost in the forecast, then get busy. When pruning, look for cold-injured wood by scraping a small section of bark. If the layer beneath the bark is discolored brown or black, it's damaged and should be cut away. New growth also will help direct where to prune; cut back to 1/2 inch above new buds. Spring is also a good time to give your entire landscape a feeding of cottonseed meal, calf manna or menhaden fish meal to support the healing and growth after pruning.
Information from Times files was used in this report. B Buckberry Joyce can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8113.