Welcome to my zone 9a habitat garden near Houston, Texas.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The best way to prepare for a freeze? Know your zone and respect it.

Just when we here in Southeast Texas thought maybe it was safe to start thinking about spring, here comes Ol' Man Winter with his icy breath saying, "Hold on there! I'm not done with you yet!"

So far we've had a relatively mild winter (relative to last winter and relative to the rest of the country this winter) so it was a bit of a shock to see a prediction of four consecutive nights with temperatures in the low 20s and a possibility of teens on one night this week, but we really shouldn't be surprised. These things happen and, as gardeners, we should already have anticipated them and been prepared.

The mildness of recent winters here - all excepting last winter - has tempted many local gardeners to push the USDA hardiness zone envelope with their plantings. All those tropical beauties do issue siren calls to the gardener's ego as we walk down the nursery aisles and many gardeners have yielded to the call and planted them. Not that there's anything wrong with that, if you are willing to take the time and effort to protect them when a weather event like this week's comes calling. But I'm really not willing to do that, so I tend to stick to plants that I can be reasonably sure will survive winter in my yard, as well as summers here.

I'm just northwest of Houston. Our area is either zone 8a or 8b depending on which side of the curve in the road that you live on. The USDA says that minimum winter temperatures here are 10 - 15 degrees for 8a and 15 - 20 degrees for 8b. I'm in 8b and in 23 years here, as best I can recall, there was only once that the temperature went below 15, but there have been a few times when it got as low as the high teens as it did last winter. So I am convinced that the USDA knows whereof it speaks in regard to its plant hardiness zone information.

When you have good information based on scientific data, it is best to pay attention to it. Plants that you purchase at a nursery will almost always have a label that will tell you the zone or zones in which the plant can be successfully grown. Why would you want to set yourself up for failure by planting a plant that you know in advance will be unhappy in your yard and will probably not survive? I, for example, love lilacs and peonies, but they love colder winters and a different soil than I have to offer them, so I would never attempt to grow them in my yard. It would just make both of us - the plant and me - miserable.

So, you want to know how to be ready for the next freeze? Here it is:

1. KNOW YOUR ZONE. Everyone in our general area is going to be either an 8a/8b or 9a/9b. If you are in any doubt about your zone, study the USDA chart and find your yard and check the temperature range for that zone.

2. READ PLANT LABELS. And believe them! Choose plants that are known to be able to survive within your range of temperatures.

3. IF YOU IGNORE RULE #1 AND #2, STOCK UP ON FROST CLOTH AND CLOTHESPINS TO SECURE IT! And be prepared to protect your treasures when the temperatures drop.

Good luck with this week's freeze.


And one more thing. Well, three more, actually.

1. If you have outside pets that cannot be brought into the house, please give them extra protection and a source of heat during the cold weather and provide extra nourishment to help them generate their own body heat.

2. Feed the birds! The cold is not a particular problem for them, but no food is. They are high-energy creatures and need a constant source of food to keep up that energy. They also need a source of water, so make sure the ice in the birdbaths is removed and fresh, clean water added.

3. If you have a pond with goldfish or koi as I do, unplug the pump for the duration of the freeze. It mixes the cold water on top of the pond with the warmer water on the bottom and makes life more difficult for the fish. They are cold water creatures so they can survive the cold, even if the pond freezes over, but you can give them that little bit of extra help by turning off the pump.

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