How to Rescue Your Plants in Colder Weather
Fall gardening 101.
Published Jun 21, 2019 12:04 PM
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You love your garden. You slave over pruning, have a watering schedule you’re more mindful of than booking your own doctor’s appointment and sacrificed every last square inch of outdoor space to a plant. But come fall, it’s a whole new ball game.
The temperatures change and so does your care schedule, but there are so many other factors to consider when dealing with fall gardening that it can feel overwhelming. You don’t want all your hard work to go to waste so it’s time to prepare accordingly. We asked a few experts for their insight on all things cold-weather gardening; and boy, was it enlightening. See for yourself.
Is there anything we should be planting right now?
Tim Duffin, brand manager for Burpee Plants at Ball Horticultural: Pansies come in a variety of colors, from buttery yellows to deep plums and shades of blue, providing a pop of color to your outdoor space this fall. They can tolerate cold temperatures—even frost—and will over winter through the following spring in most parts of the country.
Amber Freda, founder of Amber Freda Landscape Design: You should definitely be planting spring-flowering bulbs like tulips, daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, and allius now. Since all of these bulbs require a winter chill period to come up and bloom in the spring, fall is the best season for planting.
Which plants can withstand colder temps?
Danae Horst, founder of Folia Collective: It depends on your zone. Sedums (a type of succulent plant) are remarkably cold-tolerant; hostas, most yucca, catmint, and geraniums are also very hearty, and can often survive outside in cold and snow, then bounce back in the spring.
Freda: There are loads of plants that will survive outdoors in the Northeast over winter, and be evergreen as well. There are sun-loving plants like junipers, arborvitaes, boxwoods, and gold mop cypresses. For shade, we recommend cherry laurels and rhododendrons. Even some plants that lose their leaves will still stand out beautifully in the winter landscape—red-stem dogwoods, paperbark maples, and white Himalayan birch trees.
What measures should you take to safeguard your plants this fall, before cold weather hits?
Duffin: Early fall weather typically combines warm days with cool nights, resulting in overnight frost that can shock your plants if they’re not protected. Keep an eye on the forecast. Keep your microclimate in mind; cold air sinks, so if you live in a low area, or if your garden is in a low area, it will likely be cooler than the advertised temperatures.
Create your own “mini greenhouse” by cutting out the bottom of a used milk jug or soda bottle and covering the plants with the remaining top portion of the bottle. Or, keep larger plants warm with a lightweight fabric to drape over them at night. Just remember to remove the sheet the following day when the sun returns so you don’t cook your plants!
How does your care schedule for your garden change in colder weather?
Duffin: There’s fewer weeds, less insect damage, and more moisture than during hot, dry summer months. Cool temperatures hold vegetables in the garden better, so you don’t have to rush to harvest.
Freda: I recommend going out once a week and just looking at the soil, only watering when it appears to be dry.
What about indoor plants; what changes should you make in preparation for winter?
Horst: Keep in mind that if you’re using a heater more or if the air gets a lot drier in the winter in your zone, your plants will need some added humidity—much like your skin often does in the winter. Run a humidifier near your plants or place a tray filled with pebbles and water to just below the surface of the pebbles, under your plants. The water evaporating around them will raise the humidity levels. Even just grouping plants together can help a bit.
Take some time to notice how the light has shifted since summer, and assess whether your plants are getting what they need. Many indoor plants are tropical plants, which are more sensitive to cold than even cacti or succulents, so they need some protection as windows and walls usually become much colder to the touch in winter months, especially in snowy/icy climates.
Are there any plants that are particularly easy to transplant? How can you do so carefully, without damaging them?
Duffin: Perennials can be transplanted easily in the fall; seedums, hostas, and daylilies. Keep their roots intact and provide a widely dug hole in the same depth as its plastic pot or root ball. Water it well for good root hydration.
Erin Hodges, designer at Plant Specialists: To overwinter your annual indoors, dig up the entire plant before your first fall frost. Cut the plants back by about a third, and plant them in pots in the fresh organic potting soil.
Freda: Any extreme changes in sunlight can be shocking to a plant, so it’s best to change the amount of light they receive per day gradually. The planter size should be proportionate to the plant’s size, since overly large containers will not dry out quickly enough and could cause rot, while overly small planters will dry out too quickly.
What outdoor plants should you bring indoors when it starts getting colder?
Horst: This will vary depending on the “zone” (AKA climate region; check out this map if you’re not sure of yours) you live in; but generally, if the temperature drops below freezing at night, any tropical plants that have been living outside should come inside for the winter. This includes monsteras, philodendrons, alocasias, and even epipremnums (pothos).
Let’s talk fall garden checklists. What are the housekeeping things to tick off the list this time of the year?
Hodges: Fall clean-up/winterizing consists of cleaning up tired annuals and finished plants, removing invasive weeds, preparing soil for spring, pruning perennials, mulching beds, spraying broadleaf evergreens with anti-desiccant, cleaning and removing all leaf debris, and dividing and planting bulbs.
Freda: All irrigation systems should be shut off and blown out a couple of weeks before the average first freeze for your area. People should no longer be fertilizing their outdoor plants, which should be hardening off and slowing down on their growth in preparation for winter.
Any other general maintenance to take care of ASAP before it gets too cold?
Duffin: Have a good look at your shovels, trowels, and pruners, and do any cleaning, sharpening, or oiling needed. This way when the weather breaks in spring, nothing will slow you down.
Think about adding a compost pile or bin to your garden space. You can continue to compost kitchen waste and leaf litter through the cold season, and you’ll have the makings of great organic food for your garden next spring.
Empty and clean containers, then bring them indoors for winter to avoid cracking; clean and place in storage. Finally, remove debris (including dead plants and rotted vegetables) to reduce disease and insect problems in the future. Do not add diseased plants to your compost piles, but discard or burn them to prevent the spread of disease.
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