May 8, 2012

Protect Plants from Cold Without Trashing the Yard

So, you planted too early?  Now it's time to think about serious protection for plants.  Unfortunately, plant covers cost money and are typically kind of ugly.  Home made solutions make the garden look like a tornado's just strewn the contents of your laundry room or recycling bin across the garden.  And, in my case, when that garden is also the "decorative" front lawn in military housing, it is cause for annoyed neighbors and violation warnings.  Fortunately, there are ways to protect delicate plants from the cold without looking like you're also running the worlds trashiest yard sale.

There are tons of products you can buy to protect young vegetables from the frost if you plant too early.  Some of them include the Wall O' Water, and the Season Starter which look like someone stuck a bunch of those popsicle tubes into a cilendar and filled them with water.  The water forms a thick buffer between the plant and the cold night air.  You can buy plant covers, which are basically glorified sheets or tarps that you put over your plants.  The problem with them is that when the fabric touches the plants and there's frost, it will still damage the plant where it touches it.  Pop up cold frames and clear plastic cold frames have the advantage of a plant cover without the danger of the plant touching the material and causing frost to touch it.  None of these fit within my $5 budget.

Then there are homemade solutions, but many just aren't options because we'd get tossed out on our ears so fast the moment we put sheets over plants in the "decorative" yard,  put upside down buckets in front of the house, or milk jugs on plants.  Some even suggest putting water filled containers next to plants.  All of these would be considered littering, and just won't work for our neighborhood.  So I kept looking online and found out more.

There are Different Types of Cold Damage
According to the University of Georgia, there are three types of cold damage:  Burn, desiccation, and frost cracks.  Each looks different, occurs in different conditions and had different results on plants.

  • Burn:  plants get mushy and turn brown or black like they've been burned.  Big plants may get sunken areas, but my plants are small, so they just would look nasty.  Fortunately, none of my plants have that effect.  It's caused by very cold temperatures.  This can happen overnight and get worse every time the plant's exposed to the cold temp.
  • Desiccation:  Plants dry up at the edges as if you haven't watered them in a while.  To understand why, you have to channel your inner elementary school science teacher:  cold doesn't hold moisture like warm does.  It's caused by winter winds, which dehydrate plants over time as the dry air blows across them.  It's a slow process that starts with wilting, and continues over several nights until the plants are dried up.  So you can more easily bring plants back from the brink.
  • Frost Cracks:  Woody plants get cracks when it's freezing at night and warm in the day.  The cells right under the bark freeze at night, and burst when they thaw too quickly the next day, so the wood splits.  What's weird about this is that it takes frequent cold nights/warm days for this to happen, and you don't see the cracks until summer sometimes.  This also is not my current problem.

So, I have the second type.  What to do now?  Well. . .

  • Protect plants from the wind with pretty stuff.  This would be a great time to strategically move decorative stones or, heaven forbid, garden trolls to temporary positions next to (almost on top of) your tender vegetables  to block the wind.  Alternatively, I can replant some of these to less exposed spots.
  • Protect plant stems from wind with mulch.  I don't have a ton of mulch, but mounding it around the plants will protect the base of the stems and roots from the cold.
  • Water plants.  I read a lot about this, but nothing explained why watering helped so much.  But, each every page suggested ensuring plants were well watered.
  • Create a cloak of still air with an upside-down jar.  For some reason, plastic looks trashy, but mason jars look rustic and country-pretty.  I have no idea why.  But, the goal of covering plants with milk jugs or buckets is to create a cloak of still air around them.  This same effect can be achieved with small plants using an overturned mason jar--or empty salsa or pasta sauce jar in a pinch.  The key is that the object not touch the plant.  Since the overturned jar only goes on in the afternoon/night (put it on in the afternoon, keep it on all night, remove in the morning as temperatures rise), it only has to withstand afternoon/night scrutiny.  So, I'm considering putting a cloth bow or painting a stripe on mine to make it more decorative and give it a shot.
  • Upside Down Pots to create that same "dead air" space.  This operates on the same theory as the upside-down jar but benefits from the fact that I have empty pots at hand.  My theory is that people are used to seeing pots in gardens, right?  So a few upside down ones shouldn't seem trashy.  
  • Warm the Soil With Black Cover.  This idea came from something I read on Rutger's "If Plants Could Talk" website.  They suggest black rubber mulch to absorb the daytime heat and warm the soil.  I don't want to buy mulch, but I think the concept would work almost as well with any black colored material.  So, I was thinking of cutting circles from black rubber If I have it, garden fabric (which I have somewhere), or other black/dark material.  Then cutting a hole in the center and a slit down the side like a Christmas tree skirt.  I will slip this onto and around the plant's base and it would lay flat to the ground.  Most people won't even notice it when they walk by, but it should help warm the soil.

I'm starting this today, and will post tutorials as I upload the pictures.  Hopefully it will work!

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