A GROWING CONCERN: A little cold makes for a hardy plant

AS THE SNOW flurries blew around the Peninsula this last week and the ground actually froze — what, if anything does this cold snap mean to your plants and yards?

Well, as mentioned last week, it’s still winter.

And since we are in the last trimester of winter, snow, frost and cold snaps will occur.

In fact, I have observed in 13 of the past 14 years, some of our coldest weather — or even our coldest — has happened during the last 10 days of February (regardless what a rodent in Pennsylvania predicts).

Truth be told, it is a good thing cold weather comes to visit us often here during the month of February (and no, not just because I am a “Good olde Wisconsin Boy”).

The reason we gardeners want to embrace the snow and cold is precisely because it “chills out the plants.”

I have also noticed in the last decade, that here on the Olympic Peninsula we seem to be regularly having very warm, sunny days with temperatures in the high 40s’ or even 50’s during the month of January.

This unseasonably warm weather does many things to our plants, affecting the garden tasks we choose to perform.

These nice, sunny warm days have our garden plants responding earlier than normal.

Rhododendrons start to flower, bulbs break the ground prematurely, slug eggs hatch, weed seed germinates and perennials “break out” sooner than desired.

So when we get frost, snow, even hard freezes in February, it is a good thing.

This to-be-expected weather slows things down and helps “harden off” plants, especially new growth.

To harden off is to have early, winter emerging plants that grow during numerous frost and hence their new growth becomes accustom to the temperature, and this action makes them resistant to future cold weather, i.e., “hardened off.”

Their foliage and flowers can then withstand the ensuing cold without detriment, and as we said in the 60’s “chills them out, man.”

This year, as in many past years, as a horticulturalist, I was getting very concerned about how frost and early plants were developing.

I was worried because as new buds, leaves and shoots grew, future frost could severely damage ensuing growth.

Believe it or not, I was doing the happy dance last week as I looked at the 10-day forecast because we needed weather to slow down our plants, hardening them off.

As a wonderful benefit, those emerging, delicate, soft-bodied baby slugs are not doing very well this week.

Nor are the various molds, mildews and funguses that I saw just starting to form.

An added benefit is the fact that your grass can now go a few more weeks without a first mowing of the season.

So what does the cold spell mean in any negative connotations you ask?

First, many hard, cold-tolerant plants, especially perennials, will now have their old foliage rapidly deteriorate as the warm weather moves back in.

The snow, ice and sleet will mat down leaves and compact ground covering plants.

The snow will, or has already caused, plant damage as well, by breaking or snapping existing growth.

Go out this next week and “clean up” your plants and yard.

Rake and blow away old leaves and plant debris.

Prune baby prune.

If you have not done so, prune your fruit trees yesterday, because Mother Nature has helped you by keeping the sap from flowing (but that will soon be over, and flow it will).

Look at where the hazardous ice has formed and correct those potentially damaged areas.

Take the opportunity to buy nice fleece lined boots, gloves and work pants.

If you haven’t since last week, I’ll remind you again, sharpen and oil up all your garden tools as well.

But most importantly realize this weather, the cold weather and snow, has been great for your plants and garden so embrace it.

When I see 20 degrees in February, here on the peninsula my only thought is, “but that’s above zero.”

So make a fire in your wood-burning fireplace, or click the electronic ignition on your propane appliance and sit back, looking through a great gardening catalog while enjoying a few days off from yard work, because with the advent of spring, us gardeners soon won’t get many more free days until June.

Stay warm my friends, and keep that snow shovel near your back door as our last week February is here.


Andrew May is an ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula Daily News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email [email protected] dailynews.com (subject line: Andrew May).

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