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With daylight saving time over, the forecast is anything but sunny

I fell back last week and ouch! It left a mark. No more pleasant puttering after work, spending the last hour of sunlight looking for new buds and deadheading spent ones. I'm suffering such withdrawal, Farmville's even starting to look good again.

(Don't know that Facebook game? Trust me, you don't want to. One click and you'll be inside planting virtual tomatoes long past the time you could be outdoors again picking off hornworms for real.)

The end of daylight saving is also a reminder that winter is on its way. I used to be a fan of winter but I've been burned — freeze-burned — the past two.

I learned my lesson, sort of, and got better about putting only cold-tolerant plants in the ground. Not one for self-denial, I figured I could still indulge in gorgeous, tender perennials by keeping them in pots. When I was snapping up all those clearance-sale containers, though, I didn't think ahead to just how many pots — and resident lizards, spiders and ants — I'll be hauling indoors with every freeze forecast. I now have a lot of pots.

As I often do, I turned to a trusted source of advice for facing dark issues: fellow gardeners. I asked them for tips on gardening after sunset and good ideas for cold preparations.

Interestingly, their answers included a surprising array of beverages: ice-cold Budweiser, merlot, decaf coffee, gin and tonic, any wine, any beer, any alcohol, hot chocolate. No wonder gardeners are such relaxed types!

Paul Close of Valrico says he lost so much in the January and December 2009 freezes, he had to relandscape. And — this makes me feel better about my own freeze losses — he's a senior forecaster for the National Weather Service.

"I had plants I probably shouldn't have tried," Close admits. "In Tampa, you know it's going to get down near 30 degrees once or twice, even during a mild winter. And out in Valrico, it's even worse. The cold air comes down the valley (between the Brooksville Ridge and the Lake Wales Ridge) and hits East Hillsborough."

Paul, who works at the weather service's Ruskin station, says we're supposed to have a drier winter this year, with normal to above-normal temperatures.

"But that was the forecast last year, too," he notes. "January and February were warmer, but by then, it was too late."

Want to be well warned of an impending freeze? Paul has a cool trick. There's some clicking involved, but it's worth it. Go to weather.gov. In the blue rail to the left, scroll down to "Climate" and under that, click "Predictions." Now, looking in the white area, click on the first website, "Climate Prediction Center." You can get some good info there, but better yet, look again to the rail on the left.

Under "Climate-Weather," click "AAO, AO, NAO, PNA." Now (we're almost there!) click the first link: "AO (Arctic Oscillation)."

This, Close says, is a great way to see a freeze coming. Zoom in on the graph. When most of the red squiggly lines to the far right go down to minus 4, you can bet on a freeze in 10 to 14 days.

Other great tips for both after-dark gardening and cold prep:

From Allison Marsh in Northdale: "Put on a light fleece. Make a short but sturdy gin and tonic. Wander outside among the plants in the light of the moon to truly see your garden shape without the distraction of weeds, areas in transition, etc.

"This is how George Harrison planned his beautiful gardens. (Not sure if he had a G&T with him; that was my addition.)"

Kathi Hobbs in Lutz: "Drink decaf coffee, hot chocolate or wine while looking at the garden from inside the house and plan what you're going to do when it gets lighter outside."

Chip Fulp in North Tampa: Stock up now on clothespins (they can be harder than you think to find on the night of a freeze) and hit garage sales, thrift stores and flea markets for cheap sheets and other covers.

"One year I got in big trouble using something to cover I should not have. I used (wife) Diane's grandmother's baby blanket. . . . So now I have thrift store bedsheets."

Patty Mulholland in Englewood: Plant natives and stuff that grows "at your feet"— the stuff that pops up with no one's help.

Mulholland moved here six years ago from Connecticut and is still searching for perfect plants tolerant to freeze, drought, rain and heat. Among those she's trying are native wild poinsettia, Poinsettia cyathophora. She has seen it thriving in native landscapes in the winter.

Even prettier, she says, are two ground covers many people consider weeds: frogfruit and carpetweed, Lippia nodiflora and Lippia lanceolata. Both attract butterflies.

Finally, Mulholland says, consider sparing those Spanish needles plants you've been yanking out.

"Taming the Spanish needles (Bidens alba) to an out-of-the-way garden spot has a benefit," she says. "Butterflies that use it for nectar are zebra heliconian, Gulf fritillary, Julia, white peacock, Horace's duskywing and a variety of the skippers."

And my advice? It's a twofer, good for after dark and for cold prep: Start cuttings from your favorite plants, the ones whose loss will make you want to drown your sorrows in a gallon of hot chocolate made with whole milk and a full bag of marshmallows.

It may mean even more pots to haul indoors come a freeze warning, but it should keep you safe from Farmville. Consider it cheap insurance for the dark days ahead.

Penny Carnathan can be reached at pcarnathan@sptimes.com or join her and other local gardeners on Facebook at digginfladirt, or at www.digginfladirt.com.

With daylight saving time over, the forecast is anything but sunny 11/10/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 10, 2011 3:30am]

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