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SURVIVING THE WORST OF WINTER; Precautions: Water and protection will help tender plants make it through cold, dry weather.


Four days before Christmas, we finally had our first hard frost just north of the city. My allysum and arugula were at last knocked off. Months before, a lack of rain had left the earth so hard that we almost needed a jackhammer to dig holes for daffodil bulbs.

As Miss Clavel in the "Madeline" children's book series was often moved to say, "Something is not right."

Instead of the more than 3 inches of rain we normally get in November and again in December, we barely had 1 inch per month, with unusually sunny skies and warm temperatures well into December.

The combination of a dry, warm fall followed by sudden freezing temperatures is hard on many plants in the garden. And since last summer and fall were dry and because much of the rain we got last spring ran off instead of being absorbed into the ground, the first foot of the soil's moisture needs to be replenished.

Fortunately, we can, even now, do a few things to protect our plants, although hindsight tells us that watering our evergreens this fall would have helped. And while protecting our plants, we should remember to put water out daily for the birds; many of their water sources have dried up or frozen over.

Ann Lundy, owner of Landscapes by Design in Roland Park, says that our new plants are most in need of pampering, and we should definitely water them when the temperature is above freezing. Snow and, of course, rain will help, but Lundy says that a light snow that stays around in freezing temperatures (which is typical in these parts) can be damaging to plants and actually burn them (by drying them out) when it's very cold and sunny. Cloudy skies and temperatures around freezing don't dry out the plant badly because the snow is gradually melting and seeping into the ground.

Other plants stressed by prolonged dry and freezing conditions are those introduced from a little farther south, such as crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), saucer magnolias (Magnolia x soulangeana), Nandina -- a shrub also known as heavenly bamboo -- and all broadleaf evergreens, as well.

The commercial product Wilt-Pruf can be purchased at garden centers, mixed with water and sprayed on our neediest plants to replace some of the moisture. Wait until it's over 40 degrees before applying it, and if the weather stays dry, apply it again about eight weeks later.

Lundy also advises mulching, especially around young shrubs and trees, and around those eager daffodil shoots that came up too early during the warm fall days. A layer of leaves around the daffodils (or other young sprouts that germinated too soon) will protect them somewhat as will placing your discarded, cut-up Christmas tree and other greens on them.

Native plants will usually do well no matter what nature throws at them here because they are adaptable enough to tolerate a range of conditions. Above all, don't panic, says Lundy, and if some of your shrubs or trees look dead, don't remove them right away. If you don't see any signs of life, wait until July before giving up. Some marginal plants such as Nandina and crape myrtle can survive if you treat them a little differently from in the South. As a last resort, you might cut them back after the winter. They'll probably surprise you and grow and bloom.

As for shrubs and trees like Oregon grape holly (Mahonia), Japanese cherry (Prunus serrulata) or some hollies that were fooled by the warm temperatures of late fall and bloomed early, they are not likely to bloom again, unless we have a very mild winter.

Fruit-bearing plants whose blossoms froze will not bear fruit this year, and we can do nothing about that. Timing in the garden, as elsewhere, is everything.

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