In upstate NY, where I live, frost is expected in fall, and by Thanksgiving we are more concerned if there will be snow--and how much. Unlike my climate, many parts of the deep South and far West don't get temperatures below freezing very often. However, my gardening friends in these areas are facing the threat of frost this week, and to hear them talk you'd think the zombie apocalypse was coming. Don't panic, I tell them, you can survive this. Just remember these five tips.
Trap the earth's heat to prevent cold damage to your plants on a frosty night. Image credit: Kathy Purdy
1) Cover your wimpy plants. Some plants die when exposed to freezing temperatures. In the North we call them annuals--or maybe houseplants. In places where water doesn't normally freeze, they are merely wimpy plants that need a little protection to get through a cold spell. The idea is to trap the heat rising up from the ground around the plant, so whether you cover the plant with an old sheet or an overturned garbage can, make sure the covering goes all the way to the ground. A pillow case on top of a three foot plant is not really going to cut it. Also consider how much you love the plant in question. You may prefer to let Mother Nature eliminate the plants you're tired of. By the way, when the temperature rises the next day, remove those coverings or the plants will be toast.
Water expands as it freezes. In this case, the ice went up instead of cracking the rain barrel. Image credit: Kathy Purdy
2) Drain your hoses. Water expands as it freezes. If you leave your garden hoses connected to the outdoor spigot, full of water, the pressure created as the water expands into ice will damage your hoses. They may actually burst, or the damage may be more subtle, hidden until the next time you turn the faucet on and discover a fine spray coming from where hose joins the fitting. Spare yourself the grief. Make sure the water is turned off, take the nozzle off the end if there is one and store it indoors, and unscrew the hose from the spigot. Let all the water drain out of it. If you have any rain barrels, drain them as well.
Freezing water cracked this rain gauge. Image credit: Kathy Purdy
3) Check your rain gauge. Two reasons for this. One, if there's water in it, the expansion as it freezes can crack the glass or plastic. Also, if it hasn't rained lately, you might want to give your plants a good watering. Well-watered plants are better able to resist cold damage.
This is not a terra-cotta pot, but it is an example of spalling. Image credit: Kathy Purdy
4) Haul in your terra cotta. Large terra cotta planters are gorgeous--and expensive--and not necessarily frost-proof. Water can seep into the porous surface, and when it expands, pieces of the pot can actually chip off in a process called spalling. This can happen to any porous material, but of course it is the expensive pots that you will want to protect. If you don't know that a favorite container is frost-proof, better assume that it isn't, and act accordingly.
5) Prepare your bird bath. Finally, right before you go to bed, fill your bird bath with boiling water. Depending on how cold it gets that night, you may want to fill it with hot water again the following morning. This will keep your bird bath from experiencing damage from expanding ice, and also enable the birds to continue to enjoy it.
There, that wasn't so bad, now, was it? As Mark Twain said, "Climate is what we expect; weather is what we get." It never hurts to be prepared for the weather you don't expect.
Kathy Purdy, gardener & geek
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