more frost and freezes: minimizing damage

I DON’T RECALL A STRETCH of weather as erratic as the last year: nonstop 2011 rain; violent storms; nearly 2 feet of October snow but no winter precipitation; a dry-hot-extra-early spring, and now, the final blow–multiple freeze warnings, the first last night. My way-advanced garden, and the way-advanced natural landscape around it–all those tender leaves that are out too early for their own good–now what? Most is beyond my control, but I decided to try to protect some big-leaved perennials–hostas, and Astilboides tabularis and such–figuring even a few victories would feel better than doing nothing. A timely review of what to do, and a little slideshow of my latest madcap garden decor.

In March, I outlined tactics–such as making sure things are well-watered before a dip in temperatures–and offered links to detailed frost-minimizing strategies in this story that would be a helpful read if you’re gardening in a blue zone as I am on the current National Weather Service map.

Picture 31This weekend, I pulled out all the stops (and empty pots, tomato cages, bed linens, garden carts, you name it…) like in the slideshow below, and got help to wheel my big potted Japanese maples–whose leaves are very sensitive to frost–back into the barn, where I overwinter them, but had set them free a week ago. Oops.

(Click on the first thumbnail to start the slideshow, then toggle from side to slide with the arrow keys on your computer, or using the arrows next to each caption.)


Always be sure to remove covers before the sun hits the plants the next day, even if another night of frost or freeze is forecast. Which means out I go before supper to re-cover everything and hope again for the best. You all tucked in?

  1. Matthew says:

    Last night was the first night we did not heed the warning…and now a friend says her hydrangeas are zapped. I’m pretty nervous to look at our hydrangea border tomorrow. We lost several older ones who were just beginning to look “East Hamptony” a few years back when we had a late April snowfall. I’m keeping my fingers crossed…

  2. Joe says:

    Same kind of thing here in the Chicago area. Thursday night my kirengoshoma (sp?) (Yellow Wax Bells) was dealt a frosty crippling blow. It was super early and already about 18″ tall and I would guess that the top 8″ are toast. The leaves are dark grey and hanging like damp rags. Also have some hostas that got zapped and look like old lettuce. Should be interesting to see if they push out new leaves or what. The weather just gets crazier and crazier.

  3. Barbara Blackburn says:

    You’ve put the fear in me as I copied your potted Japanese Maple after seeing it last year at your workshop! I’m off to get my clothespins and an old sheet and out the door! Margaret, you always have such great advice.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Joe — so good to see you. The Kirengeshoma here is under a big nursery pot. It is so vulnerable as you say — funny how some things are and other not so much. i have had it nipped like you describe MANY times.

      Hi, Melissa. If I had neighbors they would definitely have me arrested, too. :)

  4. Tori Matton says:

    I am so sorry for you. First the Oct. snowstorm, a warm winter, and now this! I do feel for you. Tori, luckily in Zone 7.

  5. Crazy weather in the southwest of France also. Typical warm February that instead of morphing into a long hot summer dumped an unheard of 6 inches of snow mid month. The long hot summer let off its siren call again for a few days in mid March, and then bam, true English weather arrived with constant rain and cool temps since then. For the first time in this garden, I have to wonder if there will be enough heat to grow melons and tomatoes this year. The strawberry beds seem OK; they have been fleeced for weeks and I can see tiny fruits.

    Bon courage to all!

  6. leslie land says:

    No different down here; we’ve been covering as much as we can (combination of “can” as in capable and “can” as in bear to; there’s just so much. So far just nips on the lilies and a few sad bleeding hearts, but we’ve already had 2 nights of it with tonight another danger, and the gorgeously blooming tree peony isn’t so gorgeous shrouded in sheets, (OR sitting in a pool of them taking a breath and waiting to be recovered). Been watering the hundred-foot peony border right before bed each night – thinking grumbly thoughts about spreading disease – because it’s so far along in bud. Seems insane, but I lost one the last time we had this pattern. In 2010! Every other year a deeply unsettling thought. Hope everything keeps coming through up there under your tender and expert care.

  7. patsquared2 says:

    I so can relate to covering delicate plants with what you have on hand. I started saving sheer curtains about 10 years ago and use them. The panels are delightful to lay down over lettuce, asparagus, beet babies and onions because the are light (won’t damage) but the fibers are close together so my plants are protected. I also use old plastic pretzel barrels and, when desperate, my big pots. This approach works but it’s not very elegant!

  8. Marta says:

    FELLOW GARDENERS PLEASE HELP ME! I finally found the pefect garden gloves–all cotton on the inside, all rubber dipped on the outside (so they rinse clean under the hose), with the fingertips double dipped. I used to buy them at Walgreens–now they no longe carry them, and I haven’t been able to find them anywhere else. They came in really horrid color combos–ie purple with green tips, pink with purple, etc. Great for spreading mulch, hands never get dirty (until they wear through), and fairly rose-proof. Do you know a source?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Marta. What about trying the Nitrile-dipped versions at Atlas or Bellingham gloves (on Amazon and in garden centers)? Search online for them…so many sources, and about $7 a pair.

  9. Lorie says:

    I thought of you when Jim Cantore was doing a stand up from your neck of the woods. We had him here the week before….if Jim shows in person, he is not bringing good news. It’s just heartbreaking to see you go throught his again, knowing exactly what it feels like. Our plight now is cold cold COLD rain making the newbies in the ground show what they’re made of. My only toad found his toad abode and I think, waved a thank you.

  10. DonnaLee Lane says:

    We gardeners are such an inventive lot! Reminds me … I must replenish my supply of clothespins. You’re right! A girl can never have too many. You always leave me smiling, Margaret.

  11. Rae says:

    Here in northeast Ohio we have been having the heaviest frosts I remember seeing. When the pattern started, I was good about dragging the sheets and plant covers out and removing them in the morning. The hydrangeas (9 different) looked terrible anyway and it’s too much work so I decided to let nature take its own course and if there are not blooms this year, so be it.

  12. Marcy says:

    I live in Ann Arbor. Oddly enough, the weather you write about is often just what we have here. I awoke to my very favorite hostas weeping in agony yesterday. They are special because they don’t mind the sun and the flowers are very fragrant. All of my other hostas are just fine. I knew they would be able to weather the weather. But I naively thought, a hosta is a hosta.
    My questions are:
    Will they come back? and … can I divide them at least for next years glory?
    I have a photo.

  13. Sieglinde Anderson says:

    I am in NC just outside Asheville at 2800 ft. We’ve had a most magnificent Spring, lots of rain, a very warm winter just passed. ONE night of frost to 28 degrees devastated all the new growth that had come out just a few days prior: Mountain Laurel, ferns, all magnolias (including natives), all Taxus. Totally defoliated are Clethra barbinervis, Deutzia ‘Nikko’ and Chardonay Pearls (which were in magnificent new growth & flower!), all Hydrangea macrophylla, all Jap. maples not in the woods. Those under the tree canopy have large brown spots on all leaves. Funny, none of the hostas were frosted.My fringetree was going to flower for the first time, is now just a black mess. BUT, “Next year will be better” – what an optimistic bunch we gardeners are!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Sieglinde. I am looking out at many shrubs here and wondering what they will look like in a few days, when they try to start growing again. Not pretty. Sorry to hear your tale of misery.

      Hi, Donald’s Garden. I think Texas has the toughest situation the last few years…but everywhere the new normal is now chaos, it seems. Nice to see you!

  14. Deborah Banks says:

    We have had so many nights in the teens and 20’s after that early surge of growth in February, I just shrugged at this week’s forecast for 3 nights down to the low 20’s. Now with the weather warming up, I surveyed the damage and found only a few additional casualties. I had already written off the magnolias for this year, and accepted the browned leaves on the daylilies and hostas. But it was still a shock to see most of my lilacs with frozen leaves. Many of them already have big buds plumping up for blooming, and the buds don’t seem damaged (although that may just be wishful thinking). The leaves on almost all the bushes are destroyed. So I may have blooms this year without leaves. Should I “deadhead” them now to save their energy for putting out the next crop of leaves?

  15. Tony says:

    When you run out of garden pots don’t forget about kitchen pots, and pans, and roasters! Anything goes when i’m covering.

  16. Sieglinde Anderson says:

    Margaret, It’s now nearly a month after our freeze. Most shrubs have put on new leaves. Exceptions: Japanese maples – those that froze all leaves have made new ones but the branch tips are dead; those in the woods that had half brown leaves are still brown and very little new growth. Styrax japonica – 8 ft. tall and at least 15 years old, shows no sign of new growth whatever. Do you or does anyone have any suggestions? Someone suggested to me to fertilize it and water it in. It’s been raining nearly every day and I thought you’re not supposed to fertilize plants under stress. Is this wrong? Also no new growth on Corylopsis pauciflora.

    1. margaret says:

      So sorry, Sieglinde. If the Styrax and the Corylopsis never leafed out AT ALL (even before the freeze) I’d be looking underground or at the base of the trunks for signs of rodent damage (gnawed off bark) or some other mechanical injury. With the maples give them time and water; I would not feed as you say on stressed-out plants. You can cut bac the dark branch tips carefully. But root around a bit onthe Stryax and Corylopsis if they never sprouted at all to see what has become of them…voles? mice?

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