The bite of cold winter air and freezing temperatures can have a lasting impact on your property’s landscape. Hard and moderate freezes can damage the foliage and roots systems of plants, bushes and grass, and in extreme cases lead to plant loss that requires a capital expense to rejuvenate the landscape before the spring.
The best defense against freezing weather is some common practices that, if applied correctly, will help ensure your landscape survives freezing temperatures:
1. Irrigate before the temperatures drop
Watering plants, trees – even grass – before temperatures drop below 32 degrees is among the first lines of defense. According to the University of Florida IFAS Extension, well-watered soil will provide its own internal heating system to protect plants. Wet soil absorbs more solar radiation than dry soil, thus radiating heat during the night when temps are typically at their lowest.
In the process, water provides a barrier between the root system and cold air. The moisture fills the numerous air pockets in the ground and prevents freezing air from penetrating the roots. The cold may damage the foliage—this is evident by wilting leaves and stems—but the roots are insulated and survive under brief freezing conditions.
To ensure the landscape gets plenty of water, run the irrigation system through its normal cycle as close to the freeze event as possible. Watering too soon will allow the water to leach the soil beyond the root zone and expose the plant to the cold.
Irrigate about 10-15 minutes on each spray station and 30 minutes per rotary station for best results.
A word of caution: Once you’ve watered prior to the cold weather event, be sure and turn off the double-check valve on the sprinkler system. Also, make sure there is no residual water on sidewalks, driveways or other areas that can freeze and make for a dangerous situation for residents and staff.
As a general rule, frequent watering is not necessary in the winter months unless there just hasn’t been sufficient moisture. Water evaporates less in the winter and therefore isn’t needed as much, like in the summer and spring growing seasons. But strategically watering before a freeze can provide a layer of protection for the landscape.
2. Bring potted plants inside
Planter pots are more prone to freezing because they are elevated and don’t have the natural heat within the ground for protection. Plants susceptible to freezing should be moved to a protected area, like a maintenance shed or empty garage, even in outdoor areas protected from harsh winds.
Bringing some plants inside the office or in indoor common areas may add a little extra foliage to the atmosphere. Just remember that climate-controlled conditions dry out the air and plants may need to be watered during their stay.
3. Cover plants and be smart about it
Can’t bring plants indoors? Covering may be an option, but there are some misconceptions on best practices. Depending on where you live, covering certain types of plants may or may not be necessary. First, know what types of plants you’re dealing with and whether they need to be covered. Your local county extension office can provide the right information.
If it’s necessary to cover plants, be very aware that they need oxygen and sunlight. Coverage in plastic is a good insulator but prolonged periods under wrap can suffocate the plant. The most common mistake that people make is leaving the plant covered throughout the winter, resulting in a dead or severely damaged plant.
Light fabrics like bed sheets or burlap are good choices and don’t add as much weight to the plant if it gets wet plus allows the plant to breathe. Like plastic, however, they can prevent sufficient oxygen from getting to the plant if left in place for extended periods of time.
There are a number of commercial products available to cover plants that are designed to protect but reduce the risk of suffocation. Some are made from fiberglass and look like a little dome that fits over the plant. These are a little more attractive than hanging a sheet over a bush.
But, again, be smart. Temperature swings, like in the Southwest when the high may reach 50 during the day yet get below freezing at night, call for a little extra attention. Covers may need to come off during the day but go back on at night to the plant isn’t damaged.
Protecting a property’s investment in landscaping often is necessary when winter weather is on the scene. Taking a few simple steps before temperatures drop and keeping an eye on things during a freeze is best to prevent long-term damage to plants, bushes and other plant life around the community.