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Gardening Tips: Too cold, too soon

November 30, 2018 11:47 am Updated: November 30, 2018 11:52 am


For Columbia-Greene Media

The record breaking cold and snow that arrived on Thanksgiving may have already done major damage to our landscape plantings. Snow is the least concern unless it broke branches on trees that had not yet dropped their leaves. I observed many trees that still had green leaves when I left for Florida two weeks ago. Most trees and shrubs that can tolerate our typical winter weather have to gradually “harden off” each fall over a period of weeks. This year the cold weather arrived far too soon and far too suddenly for that natural process to happen. The result may be lots of dead landscape plants next spring or, poor flowering on many normally, reliable plants.

Trees planted this spring, summer and fall are particularly at risk, as are trees that are “borderline” hardy in any given area. I would not be surprised if there are no peach, cherry, forsythia, redbud, flowering almond, plum or even apple blossoms next spring. Flower buds are generally not as tough as leaf buds and unless these plants are in a protected site, the outlook for spring of 2019 is pretty dismal. To add injury onto injury, wildly fluctuating temperatures, which we have also experienced this past month make matter worse. A week of 60 to 70 degree weather this December with rain, might cause some plants to break dormancy, only to suffer the consequences in January.

There is really nothing that can be done now, except hope for an insulating blanket of snow to cover the ground for the rest of the winter. Frozen soil in perennial beds should be covered with several inches of mulch to keep the ground frozen. Shrub rose bushes should be pruned back to the three strongest canes at a length of 12 inches with the crown buried under a foot of unfrozen topsoil. Climbing roses should have canes cut back to six feet, bundled together and laid on the ground where they should be covered with soil as well.

Some other tasks that should be performed now include wrapping evergreens with burlap to deter deer browse, winterizing all power tools by running them out of gas, or adding a good stabilizer and running the tool for at least five minutes afterwards. Remember that ethanol enhanced gasoline sometimes destroys small engines that are not being used over the winter. I use only high octane, non-ethanol gas in all my power tools to avoid this issue. Shovels, rakes, hoes, digging forks and all other tools that break the earth will resist rust if they are thoroughly cleaned and then painted or sprayed with some sort of oil. Some gardeners fill a 5 gallon pail with sand, add a quart of motor oil and stick the metal end of the tools in the oily sand. Wooden tool handles will last much longer and feel better if cleaned and rubbed with warm linseed oil. Garden sprayers need to be thoroughly drained before storage. I also add some windshield wiper antifreeze to my sprayers and spray them for a few minutes to displace any liquid remaining in the hoses or nozzles. Garden watering hoses also need to be drained of course and rain barrels should be dumped and turned over for the winter.

Some garden pesticides are also destroyed or deactivated by sub-freezing temperatures. If possible, store liquid pesticide formulations somewhere they will not freeze. Powders are generally a bit more stable. Many fertilizers will also absorb moisture and turn into solid rocks over the course of the winter.

Mice will remain active all winter and this is a good time to set out poison baits or traps in sheds or other areas where pets or wildlife will not have access to them. Avoid using any poison baits where pets may eat the sickened rodents.

Finally, make sure your wood burning stove or furnace is functioning properly and that the chimney is clean. Burn only well-seasoned hard wood. Please consider getting rid of the wood burning device if you live anywhere the neighbors or your family will have to breathe in the wood smoke repeatedly. All wood burning devices will emit toxic smoke that is hazardous to your health. Just as second hand cigarette smoke kills innocent bystanders, it is likely that second hand wood smoke does likewise. Oil prices are now comparable to buying firewood and a properly tuned oil furnace is preferable to a woodstove for your health.

Reach Bob Beyfuss at