In 90 Seconds: How to take care of outdoor plants during a winter freeze
You read that some gardening guy is assigning you homework to do over the upcoming holidays and it’s almost more than your patience will bear. But in defense of my list and in the interest of your plants, let me remind you that there are things that need to be done in mid-winter that probably shouldn’t be pushed back too far.
Care for your poinsettia, for one. Keep it cool. Keep it bright. And keep it moist. Don’t let it wilt, and don’t set it in a hot draft (heat register or fireplace). Give it just those tidbits of care and it should look as good in February as it does right now.
Finish tidying up your landscape and garden to remove all frozen foliage and leftover stubble. Hoe out the winter weeds that have found their way to your beds. Rake out a layer of fresh mulch to keep things looking their best.
Protect your tender plants should it get really cold. This is where frost cloth comes to the rescue. It’s the lightweight gauze-like material you can use as a drape over your plants to keep winds from drying their leaves and freezing their flowers. It holds solar radiation in the soil and up around the plants’ canopies, making a 6- or 8-degree difference in the effects of really cold weather. Weight it down to the ground, and leave it in place until temperatures climb above freezing.
Water your plants during periods of dry weather the balance of the winter. So far this winter drought hasn’t been much of a consideration, but always remember that extreme cold does much more damage to plants that are dehydrated than it will to plants that you keep properly watered. It’s best to soak the soil deeply a day or two ahead of predicted plunges in temperatures to give them time to pull in the moisture.
Transplant established plants while they’re completely dormant. We’re talking about trees and shrubs, and winter is the only time when they should be moved. Dig them carefully. Use a sharpshooter spade and hold the balls of soil firmly in place around their root systems. That’s the most critical part of the transplanting process. Reset each plant at the same depth at which it had been growing before. Stake and guy as needed and water thoroughly. Prune to compensate for roots lost in the digging.
Begin winter pruning. Evergreen shrubs can be trimmed as needed in the next several weeks. However, whenever possible avoid formal shearing that will lock you into repeated pruning time after time. If you have a shrub that is too large for its surroundings, replace it with a smaller species. On the other hand, if you have shrubs that have grown a bit leggy and you need to reshape them, do so in the next four to six weeks so they can begin to gear up for new growth to fill themselves in. If you wait until they have sent out new shoots, reshaping and pruning will set them back unnecessarily.
Peaches and plums are pruned in winter to remove strongly vertical shoots. Your goal is to keep the trees at less than 9 or 10 feet tall. Grapes are pruned to remove as much as 80 to 85 percent of their cane growth annually. Wait to prune blackberries until immediately after they finish producing their crop for this year.
Wait until early February to prune roses, and be certain that they’re not infected with the fatal rose rosette virus in the meanwhile. If you determine that your plants are infected, you’ll want to remove them immediately. You cannot prune to outrun this epidemic disease.
Prune shade trees to remove weak limbs that could break in wind or ice storms. This is probably a job that is better left to a certified arborist. Branches that have died back or that are hanging at precarious angles are the most vulnerable. It doesn’t cost much to have a professional tree service person look your trees over. If necessary, branches can be removed or cabled to protect your house and your family. That’s a good investment.
If roots of a shade tree are threatening to do damage to your foundation, walk or drive, this is the tail end of the best time to remove them. The tree will need as much time as possible to grow new roots to compensate for the losses as it turns warmer in late spring. Once again, if you need professional help with this project so you don’t do damage to a valuable shade tree, look to a certified arborist.
Rototill the garden plot as time allows. I realize this may have put me over the limit on assignments while you’re saddled with all the family activities, but keep in mind that you’re only one month away from the time when you should be planting onions, English snap peas and asparagus roots into your garden. By tilling the soil now and working in organic matter and expanded shale you’ll give the ground time to “mellow” and get itself ready for those first plantings. Use a rear-tine tiller for the very best results.