Fighting the Freeze: Landscape Cold Protection

When temperatures drop below freezing for the first time of year, it seems from my perspective that a bit of panic sets in.  Early in the winter season many of our landscape plants are still in full bloom and it is just so disappointing knowing that many of them will be a brown shell of their former selves within a few days.  However, many of our plants that get killed back during a freeze will be back next year but some may require a bit of extra attention.  Here are some tips for dealing with freeze in the landscape.

  • Make your landscape more freeze proof by buying only plants that will survive in your USDA Hardiness Zone.  In Clay County, we are almost all Zone 9a so if you are buying plants that are only hardy down to Zone 9B or 10, expect heavy casualties in the winter.  In

    Hibiscus are one plant that can struggle in areas of Northern Florida. Source: UF/IFAS

    our county stay away from crotons, robellini palms, snowbush, or ti plant if you want them to survive year round.  Some may come back in the spring (a ti plant i inherited when moving into our home has come back two years in a row) but don’t expect the same performance as south Florida.

  • That being said, knowing the microclimate of your home can help protect plants.  If you are closer to water, face the south, or are very sheltered from wind, you will find areas of your yard stay warmer than others.  These are where you can try to plant some of the more tender plants.  This is why your neighbor may have a beautiful hibiscus in one spot and yours are destroyed every year.
  • If plants are in pots, move them into the garage, your home, or protected areas when a freeze is imminent.
  • The good news is if you are choosing good varieties of plants for your landscape many are already in state of dormancy.  This means the tree or shrub is hibernating for the winter and you will have little to worry about through a freeze if it is hardy to our zone.
  • Younger and freshly planted specimens tend to be a bit more tender in the landscape.  Protecting them through a freeze by covering with frost cloth or plastic can be a good option for light freezes.  Remember that with plastic sheeting, it should not touch the foliage of the plant so a frame over the plants is often needed.  Some people even put an incandescent light bulb inside of the covering to provide some extra heat but make sure it does not contact the cloth or plastic as it could be a safety risk.
  • Frost coverings should be removed as soon as temperatures rebound.  The rise in heat during a warm day can be damaging and can cause plants to break dormancy.
  • Citrus seems to be the number one concern when it comes to freeze damage and with fruit crops and the cost of the trees new it is easy to see why.  Choose more cold hardy varieties for our area such as kumquats or satsumas to begin with and find the right location in your hard to help their survival.
  • For younger citrus and some cold sensitive plants, mounding can be an option.  Place clean, weed free soil or builders grade sand over the lower trunk area.  Do this to protect the crown of the plant or the graft union on citrus.  Once mounded, leave the material on until daytime temperatures are consistently in the 70’s in the spring.  The soil can be damaging to the plants over a long period of time so make sure it is absolutely needed and remove fully as soon as the danger of freeze for the season is gone.
  • Finally, irrigation can be a help to protect your landscape plants in a freeze.  Water early in the morning the day of an expected freeze.  The water in the soil will actually insulate temperatures around the roots and provide some protection.

With these tips you can be a bit better prepared for upcoming cold weather and have your landscape flourishing again in spring.  However, freeze damage is inevitable in some plants and treating them properly afterwards is essential.  To see how to address this issue, see my other blog on dealing with cold damaged plants here.

For more information on this topic consider the following UF/IFAS Extension Fact sheets:

Cold Protection of Landscape Plants

If you have any further questions, be sure to reach out to your local UF/IFAS Extension office where trained faculty, staff, and volunteers can help.