Freeze Protection & Cold Education

Fall is a glorious but fleeting time soon followed by winter, a period of scarcity when freezing temperatures threaten the survival of animals and plants. Fortunately, some steps can help protect plants from life-threatening damage and keep them healthy and thriving despite freezing weather events.

Pay heed to that old axiom that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. For best results, plant your trees in the right location. First, consult the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map and select species or varieties suited to your zone. Chestnut Hill Outdoors lists zones for all available tree and shrub species. We also check all orders to ensure they’re correct for your zone before shipping.

Next, look for more favorable site conditions or micro-climates. Landscape features like slope, topography, and aspect can cause subtle variations. For example, open ground on south-facing slopes will be warmer, while bottomlands or a northern aspect could result in frost pockets where cold air or late frosts settle and linger.

The first two years are critical for new trees, so avoid potential perils when planting. For spring planting, wait until after the average last frost date, which you can find in the Old Farmer’s Almanac or by consulting your local USDA agricultural agent. Exceptionally late frost events may still occur, but they tend to be less damaging as the ground stays warmer at night and warms more quickly during the day. Fall planting is best done after the growing season but before the first frosts.

When planting, it’s recommended to establish an area of clear ground around the tree and add mulch to reduce competition for water and soil nutrients from weeds and other plants. This also offers a secondary benefit of absorbing more sunlight and re-radiating heat through colder hours. 

Ordering trees well before planting is always a good idea to ensure they arrive on time. That might still be frost season, but the trees are still dormant and can withstand freezing temperatures. Still, you should store them in a cool place like a basement or root cellar.

Folks who grow plants for a living are always watchful of the weather; you should be too. There’s a greater risk when trees start to leaf out, and a late frost is expected. Then you should take protective measures. Frost cloth allows for sufficient airflow and sunlight but will also shield plants. Grow tubes are another excellent idea. Not only will they protect the bark from gnawing pests, but they also function like tiny greenhouses and will ameliorate temperatures.

In addition to cold, heavy snow and ice can also be a problem. There’s not much you can do for large trees except be patient and wait for melting. With young stock, you may be able to sweep snow off the branches with a broom. Sweep from the bottom up, so you don’t increase the load on lower branches.

Even the best efforts sometimes fall short; unexpected weather events could cause cold damage. Fortunately, there’s still hope for salvaging your stock. It’s tempting to prune damaged leaves and twigs immediately, but the damage may not be as bad as it appears. Be patient and wait to see if new growth emerges in the spring from what you thought was dead tissue. You might even wait until the end of the growing season before pruning off deadwood.

Larger branches are another thing but here, too, be conservative. If the damage is only to small limbs and twigs, there’s a good chance the tree will recover without help or with modest pruning and trimming. If the damage is severe, you may have to cut the tree down to the ground level, wait for it to re-sprout, select a dominant leader or sucker and prune to promote its growth. 

When in doubt, you can always consult an arborist. They’re experienced in assessing damage and making proper prescriptions. As a middle ground, you can always call us Chestnut Hill Outdoors. We’re always happy to talk about trees, wildlife, and habitat.

Alachua, FL

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