Any winter can be a reminder to those of us gardening in the Sunshine State that it can get darned cold here, and our tropical and tender shrubs, trees and perennials require protection when frost or freezes threaten. But even with better warnings, freeze protecting trees, shrubs and plants is a challenge. And even with adequate warning, freeze damage can occur. However there are things you can do to help prevent and alleviate the impact to tender vegetation. Here are some tips for protecting plants:

• Mulch: Using bark, straw, sawdust, peat moss, leaves or grass clippings, mulch well (at least two to three inches deep). Mulching plants in the winter helps protect the roots. Mulch can be removed when the cold temperatures subside. Keep the mulch an inch or two away from the trunk or main stem, and check once a month to make sure that moisture is still able to reach the soil. Dry soil combined with cold can cause serious freeze damage.

• Cover: Burlap, old blankets, or sheets (any cloth material) can be used to cover plants. It is recommended that you drive stakes in the ground around shrubs and drape the cloth cover over the stakes. Foliage in contact with the cover can be injured, so try to minimize cover contact with foliage. Cold covers must go all the way to the ground and be firmly anchored so that the cover forms a dome over the plant trapping in heat from the surrounding soil.

• Water: While it is not recommended that water be sprayed over plants, shrubs or trees (It could freeze and the weight can break or damage foliage and limbs), a hose with a steady trickle of water running though it can be wrapped around the trunks of trees such as citrus varieties to protect the graft area. Even if the canopy suffers damage, the graft will be protected allowing the tree to grow again. In addition a thorough watering of plants before a freeze event can help them withstand the drying effects of especially cold temperatures.

• Container: Potted plants such as tender tropicals can be brought inside in cold weather. Bring the container into a shed or garage, and avoid heated rooms. The container should be placed back outside in the sunlight as soon as possible. If your container is too large to move, try mounding mulch around its sides or wrapping it in blankets that reach all the way to the ground. Tall potted plants can be placed on their sides so that they touch the ground, and then covered for protection.

And when cold damage does occur, it is tempting to “clean up” damaged plants as soon as the destruction shows up, but cutting back plants too soon could further tax them by cutting away live portions. Often young plants are more susceptible to sudden, drastic drops in temperatures and sustained cold weather (25 degrees or below). As your plants mature and become more established in their environment, they will be better able to withstand cold temperatures. Also wait until temperatures warm up and new growth appears before fertilizing cold-damaged plants. If done too soon, plants could be burned or worse, produce a growth spurt that could be damaged if more low temperatures occur.

But there is a bright side to Florida freezes. Those plants that kicked the bucket may not have been suitable for your growing area after all, and their demise opens up the opportunity to replace them with native or other varieties more suited to their habitat. The cold weather can also reduce pesty insect populations. Fewer bugs could be a good thing, right? Good riddance, thanks to Jack Frost.

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