Contrary to popular belief, the South is not warm and sunny year-round without a cloud in the sky. Winter can bring frosts, freezes, wind chills and yes, even sleet and snow to southern regions, and it is essential to protect plants from harsh winter weather just as it is in more northerly yards and gardens. Fortunately, it is easy to provide good winter plant protection to keep southern greenery from suffering when cold strikes.
Planting Appropriately is the Best Protection
While southern regions can be lush, fertile areas for all types of landscaping, the plants that will do best through every southern season are those that are hardy in each specific gardening zone. Native varieties will be even better suited to different southern climates, and are adapted to the local weather conditions, including winter changes. When choosing plants for a southern garden or landscape, be mindful of the exact planting zone, and consider microclimates within your lawn or garden as well – a good windbreak, for example, can provide further protection from northern winds, or plants that require a warmer, sunnier location may thrive best when planted alongside a wall or fence that will reflect more heat and sunlight. As with any gardening or landscaping, choose healthy, vibrant plants that show no signs of damage, disease or pest infestations, and provide them with appropriate growing conditions, fertilization and watering. A healthy, robust plant will be best able to resist any trouble from winter weather, no matter where it is planted.
Protecting Southern Plants in Winter
Tropical plants are popular in southern gardens and landscaping, but it is important to remember that these are delicate plants that are highly susceptible to frigid conditions and can easily be damaged in cold and frost. It is essential to be aware of local weather forecasts several days in advance to protect plants if necessary. Watch for impending storms and dropping temperatures, and take appropriate precautions as needed.
- Water plants well 1-2 days before the weather shifts. Saturated soil will trap solar heat more efficiently to insulate roots. Avoid watering foliage right before the cold strikes, however, or frost and ice can extensively damage tender leaves. Do not water plants more than a day or two before the cold, or you risk developing root rot with too-moist conditions.
- Move containers and hanging baskets to a sheltered, indoor location if possible. A garage, shed or screen porch is ideal, but if there is no suitable indoor location, group containers together in the most sheltered location possible, such as a fence corner. Stacking hay bales or winding blankets around the pots can help preserve radiant heat for all the containers.
- Lightly cover the most delicate plants with sheets, burlap or landscape fabric, but do not use plastic that will trap moisture and crush or suffocate delicate plants. Breathable fabrics help keep plants protected from winds and trap more heat radiating from the soil to keep plants warm without harming them.
- Add an extra layer of mulch in flowerbeds or over tender roots, or even over short groundcovers completely. A layer 2-3 inches deep will provide protective insulation, but do not leave it in place more than a couple of days or plants may smother. Pine needles, leaves and grass clippings can all work as emergency mulch if needed.
- Avoid late-season pruning of any plants that may be susceptible to cold. Cuts and trimming cause injuries to the plant where cold damage can invade more easily if the plant has not had sufficient time to heal and form a protective callus. Instead, save pruning for early spring after all risk of cold weather has completely passed.
- Do not over fertilize plants in late fall or early winter. This will encourage additional foliage growth, and tender, young shoots are much more likely to be damaged by winter weather. Instead, gradually reduce plant and landscape feeding throughout the fall to help harden plants to survive the cold season intact.
When winter weather threatens the south, use as many techniques as possible to protect your plants and landscaping and minimize any damage the weather may cause.
Keep Reasonable Expectations
While it is possible to provide winter protection for southern plants, it is also necessary to stay reasonable. Even with the best protection, some plant damage and loss is possible, especially with younger plants or tropical varieties that are being grown well outside their native ranges or optimum growing zones. When damage does occur, wait until spring to fully evaluate the extent of the damage, and prune or replace the plant as needed. With careful protection, damage can be minimized and your landscape will continue to look spectacularly lush all year long.