Winter Lawn Maintenance to Ensure Protection of Plants

sprinkler and irrigation systems atlantaCold damage to plants can be a problem during the winter in the Georgia landscape.  Following the recommended practices for  winter lawn maintenance can maximize the chances that your plants will survive the winter.

Acclimate your plants to the cold before the first freeze.  Cold injury can occur on all parts of the plant. Typically, cold damage is noticed first on the leaves and stems. Ice forms and the plant tissue dies and leaves become brownish-black and mushy. Cold acclimated plants can often withstand this type of ice formation. Plants that are not acclimated may sustain injury to the root system and may be severely damaged or killed.

Windy conditions and accompanying cold also may cause plant damage by drying out the plant.  This problem is seen in leaf scorching or leaf-tip burn.  Leaves may eventually turn completely brown and defoliate.

Damage to flower and leaf buds can occur during periods of low or fluctuating temperatures. This can lead to a reduction or total loss of blooms and damaged foliage the following spring. You can assess the damage by removing a few buds and cutting them open.  If they appear green throughout, they are healthy.  However, if they are partially brown or black, they have been injured.

Preventive Winter Lawn Maintenance

Plant & Site Selection

The best way to prevent cold damage is to select a plant that can tolerate cold temperatures in your area. In addition to plant selection, proper site selection is essential. Assess your property to determine the location of the coldest and the warmest spots. During the winter, the coldest spots are often found on the north and northwest part of the property and in low areas where cold air settles. The warmest spots are usually on the southern part of the property.

Plant Nutrition

A plant that has been fertilized properly is healthier and more capable of acclimating to cold temperatures. Do Not Fertilize plants in the fall (after August or September).  Nitrogen can cause a flush of new growth that is more susceptible to cold temperatures.

Pruning and Transplanting

Prune plants just prior to the appearance of new growth in late winter or early spring.  Do Not Prune in the late summer or early fall because this can promote new growth that is more susceptible to cold injury. Transplant in the early fall. Do Not Transplant in late fall or early winter since this does not allow plants time to acclimate to low temperatures.

Protective Covering

Protect plants in containers either by placing them inside shelter or by placing a protective covering (such as blankets or mulch) over them. Container plants are very susceptible to cold temperatures because their roots are more exposed. Damage caused to roots by cold temperatures may not show immediate signs of injury.  However, the damage will reveal itself when temperatures rise and the water demand from the roots is greater.

Plants growing close to the ground have more protection from heat radiating from the soil. Tall, more open plants do not receive as much radiating heat and are not as protected from the cold. Mulching helps the soil reduce heat loss.

Covering your plants with sheets or blankets helps protect them from the cold.  Do not use plastic sheeting.  The plant can heat up rapidly as temperatures rise.   Remove the cover and provide ventilation during the day to allow the release of the heat that is trapped by heat from the sun.

Water Needs Before a Freeze

Plants continue to have water requirements during the winter months. Therefore, following sound irrigation system practices is essential for a healthy and cold hardy plant. Check the water needs of plants prior to a predicted cold snap and water if necessary. Moist soil absorbs more heat, helping to maintain an elevated temperature around the plants. Mulching the base of plants helps to retain moisture.

After a Freeze

Cold damage may not be apparent in the plant for several days or weeks. To determine if your plants have been damaged by the cold, wait several days after a freeze and remove several buds, stems and leaves (if present) from the plant. If there is any discoloration in the bud, they have been damaged.

To determine if stems have been injured by the cold, peel the bark back.  If there is any black or brown discoloration, damage has occurred. Leaf damage may appear as obvious black or burnt foliage, usually occurring at the tip of the branches. Damage on buds, stems and leaves may be localized and the entire plant may not be affected.