We are experiencing unusually cold weather here in the United States. Although much of the country prepares for temperatures at or below zero each year, many of us living near the coasts rarely see temperatures fall into the teens, let alone anything colder than that.
And when it does get cold here, it normally comes in short bursts. After a day or so, we have sunshine and a thaw. We began our day this morning with a gentle rain, overcast skies, and a high around 60 F.
We don’t know exactly how cold it will be here by morning, but our schools have already cancelled classes out of concern for the children traveling in the expected unusually cold weather.
Many families living in coastal Virginia don’t have wardrobe for the cold, and don’t want to bundle up! I vividly remember snowy winter days when I had 12 year olds show up for school wearing shorts and T shirts; without coats, hats, or even a hoodie to protect them as they changed classes from one portable classroom to the next.
Now some of us have the same casual attitude towards winterizing our gardens. So often our winters are mild here. Although the USDA indicates that it can get down to 5 F in Zone 7b, we rarely experience that degree of cold. We don’t routinely bundle up our tender plants in wire cages stuffed full of straw or leaves. We don’t spread heavy mulches over perennial beds after a hard freeze because we know that encourages the mice and voles to nest among the perennial roots.
Our forecasters indicate we may set a record tomorrow for the lowest high temperature ever recorded for January 7. Our previous record was 28 F, but we may not get that warm here tomorrow. There isn’t a lot of agreement on what our low will be, but guestimates weigh in around 12F by early morning.
So what can we do to help our plants through a frigid spot like this?
If we have leaves or straw, we can still spread those over tender perennial and shrub roots. Our tomato cages can come out of storage and shelter small shrubs, like hydrangeas, which might not be able to take the icy winds. Drape the cages with heavy plastic, a tarp, or even shade cloth to break the wind and provide some insulation. Just as we add layers when it is cold, we can do what we can to add layers of protection for our garden.
All pots with marginal plants, like the olive and pomegranate trees, have come indoors. I’ve moved the remaining pots up against the walls of the house and out of the wind. The house provides tremendous shelter. I’ve lowered my remaining hanging baskets to a protected spot between the pots, and emptied all containers with standing water from the morning’s rain. Since water expands when it freezes, any standing water can damage pots, saucers, and masonry as it freezes.
We’ve covered our outdoor spigots with Styrofoam spigot covers from the hardware store, and made sure all of the foundation vents are covered. Finally, my partner has gone over everything outside numerous times, and has left lights burning in all of the areas around water pipes, and for the plants spending the winter in the garage. We are also leaving all of our outdoor Christmas lights on until the air warms back up in a few days. The little bit of heat they give might make the difference for the plants near them.
The only thing left to do is move a few Begonias away from windows and out of the drafts they cause when it is very cold out.
And, most of all, for those of you fortunate enough to have larger acreage, don’t forget all of your equipment, such as lawn mowers, tillers, tractors, etc. that you think will be fine; because they are made for “outdoor use.”
Just like cars and trucks, they need to be winterized and protected. Check oil and coolant levels, provide what shelter from the wind you can, and start them to let them run before the temperatures drop below freezing. Otherwise, as soon as it reaches the 20s again, start them and let them run for a few minutes. It may seem like a lot of work, but it beats having to replace machinery when the block freezes or the battery cracks from the cold.
Likewise, if we can protect a plant with a bit of shelter or insulation, it will save replacing it, or waiting for it to grow back from the roots. Here in Zone 7b, we don’t have our routines established for dealing with extreme weather. We just have to think through what we need to save and protect, and them improvise with the materials we have at hand.
Please stay warm, bundle up yourself and your loved ones, and stay healthy this winter. Protect the pipes and keep a fire in the hearth if you can. Like every other challenge, we can manage a spot of cold when we think it through.
This, too, shall pass; and spring will return in a few short weeks.
All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014
Plants Through the Post (Forest Garden)
Wild Ice (Forest Garden)
Winter Pruning (Forest Garden)