Every year is different, and this year was the same. In every previous year – and there have been a lot of them – we got our first frost sometime in late October, even early November. I always had ample warning, so I could cover the dozens of potted plants still malingering outside. The covers came off the next morning, and commonly I then had two or three or four weeks of decent weather to do all the things I should have done sooner.
My neighbors get frost earlier than I do because I was smart enough to live higher up the hill. My growing season is actually two to four weeks longer than someone a hundred yards down the road. So when one bright, clear day there was a frost warning issued, I figured I would be safe. But something about the feel of the air drove me to cover my plants, just in case. I dragged a dozen old sheets out of the garden shed, spread them, and went inside quite pleased with myself as the temperature started to plummet.
A typical frost event means the temperature will drop to 32, 31, maybe 30 degrees for an hour or so before dawn. It doesn’t mean it drops to 25 at midnight and stays there for hours, but that is just what it did. Many, many plants I expected to come through unfazed were very fazed indeed. Frozen. It was not quite as bad as the Great Sunporch Disaster of January 1989, but it wasn’t good.
There are gardeners who would just dump the whole lot, but I take perverse pleasure in nursing injured plants back to health, even those I have injured myself. Many of my largest and most prosperous potted plants have suffered at least one near death experience.
So the next morning some were dead, some just looked dead. There are a couple of ways to tell the difference, none always certain.
With woody plants, take a knife and gently scrape away a small scrap of the outer bark. If the layer underneath is green, it might just be faking. If it is tan, or if the outer bark is loose, probably not. But that means just that particular twig or branch is gone. Check lower on the plant. Often much of the plant is past salvage but there is still live tissue near the base. It can rejuvenate.
You can prune off a few of the end branches, but don’t prune too much, not yet. Wait to see where buds might struggle out, then cut back to the strongest. This can be a benefit in disguise, making large unwieldy plants wiedlier. And pruning woody ornamental is always good to make them more compact and bushier.
Plants without bark do not give up their secrets as easily. Do not be misled by dead leaves. Stems may still have some life in them and new leaves may sprout. Other than that, the routine is the same – prune back slightly and wait.
How long? As long as you can stand to have them hanging around. Some will show feeble signs of life in a week or two, others, particularly the woody ones, may take months. I throw those in the cellar and check every couple of weeks for buds.
Others may want some light, but it doesn’t have to be bright light. They don’t need much water. Just enough to keep them barely damp. And absolutelyno fertilizer. Some people think fertilizing will force reluctant plants to grow, but it won’t. It will actually harm them. Would you want someone to feed you when you are sleeping?
The ones that will recover will recover and face completely different problems next year.
Duane Campbell is a nationally known agricultural expert. HE can be reacher at R6, Box 6029, Towanda, PA 18848 or e-mal email@example.com.