Now that nighttime temperatures are plunging (by Central Florida standards, anyway), we switch the air conditioner over to heat and add a blanket to keep warm. But what about your plants? Although January is typically the coldest month of the year in the Sunshine State, this is the time to make a plan for protecting your cold-sensitive plants from freeze — rather than scrambling to cover what you can with whatever you have on hand when the weather report predicts an overnight low of 32° Fahrenheit or below. Being prepared with the right supplies and taking proactive measures can help your plants survive winter and be ready to thrive in the spring!
Yes, Plants Can Freeze in Central Florida
While new Central Florida residents from up north may think they’ve left harsh winters behind, they’re right! But many shrubs, perennials, annuals and even some trees are still susceptible to temperatures that are considered a light freeze (29° to 32° F) back home. Tropical plants are especially vulnerable — which is important to keep in mind if they were already on your property when you bought your house, or you planted sago palms, hibiscus, etc., because you wanted a Florida look for your landscaping.
Also keep in mind that although tropical plants are popular here, Central Florida’s climate is actually subtropical — unlike most of South Florida, which has a true tropical climate. For this reason, Central Florida doesn’t tend to experience prolonged freezes, but even one night of freezing temperatures can be enough to kill or damage plants. The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map for Florida designates growing zones and average low temperatures for each. Central Florida is zone 9B, with minimum temperatures ranging from 25° to 30° F.
By the way, it isn’t just newcomers who need to learn proper freeze protection methods. New homeowners in general or those who have recently developed an interest in gardening — be they Florida natives or semi-natives — may not know as much as they think!
Plant Smart to Prevent Freeze Damage
The first defense you can take against freeze damage is proper planning of your plantings. Again, if your plants are already established, you’ll need to work with the situation as it is. But if you’re in the process of planning your landscaping, give your new plants the advantage of the optimum location to prevent damage. Our blog post — “Plan Your Landscape Design for the Long Term” — provides more detailed information on this and other related topics.
As South Florida Plant Guide observes, cold fronts generally come from the northwest or west. “Placing tropicals on the south and east side of your home makes use of one of the best cold barriers — the house itself.” Also, as ASI Landscape Management points out, the south and east sides of a house retain the sun’s heat longer.
Other placement advice includes the following:
- Install different types of plants in areas that meet their specific requirements for drainage, support, sun/shade and wind protection.
- Group plants of different kinds to gain the advantages of symbiotic relationships.
- Place big trees or palms in areas shielded by large, more cold-tolerant trees. Understory plantings with tree canopy coverage help insulate the area by keeping it warmer and protected from frost.
- A fence or cold-hardy hedges on the north or northwest side of tropical plants can act as a buffer against cold winds.
Regardless of whether you’re able to plant strategically to shield against frigid winds, additional measures can help increase survivability. Be sure to add extra mulch around sensitive plants, which helps to trap the soil’s heat. Our blog post — “Why You Should Mulch Your Central Florida Landscape in the Fall” — covers this topic in detail. When a freeze is forecast, water your plants early in the day. This allows the soil to absorb warmth from the sun and warmer daytime air, thereby helping plants survive the cold. Also, cold winds are drying, taking a toll on plants that are already too dry.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Covering Plants
Being prepared for a freeze is essential to saving your plants. Those that should be covered include citrus, fuchsia, bougainvillea, succulents, salvia, hibiscus, jasmine, tree ferns and penstemon. Cypress Creek Landscape Supply recommends covering any recently installed plant — even if it’s cold-hardy — as it takes time for a plant to become well-established enough to survive a freeze.
When a cold front approaches, the panic reaction for unprepared homeowners is to grab whatever old sheets, beach blankets, etc., are available and cover vulnerable plants. Worse yet is improvising with a sheet of plastic, or large plastic garbage bags. Landscaping professionals agree that bedsheets and plastic should never be used to cover plants. A sheet does nothing to protect against the cold, while plastic doesn’t “breathe,” and can actually create an even colder temperature underneath. Plastic also tends to allow moisture to form on plant leaves, causing them to burn.
In addition to bedsheets, blankets, towels and other make-do standbys not providing adequate protection, such items are heavy and can break branches. They are difficult to secure on the plant and will also transmit cold to the plants if they become wet. Blankets and sheets do not allow for light penetration or airflow, and can “cook” the plant if they get too hot.
Some recommend a quilt or blanket as a last resort, but only for hardy, well-established plants that won’t be damaged by their weight. Burlap can be used, but shouldn’t touch the plants, which necessitates creating a tent-like structure with wooden stakes. This prevents wet burlap from freezing and damaging foliage and ensures the cover doesn’t blow away in the wind. However, this may be too labor- and time-intensive for most people.
To be ready with the right protection, buy frost cloth. This is an insulating material of woven fabric created specifically to protect plants from freeze damage. It’s available at plant nurseries and home improvement centers, as well as major online retailers.
The good people at Green Acres Nursery & Supplies provide the following instructions for correctly placing frost cloth:
- Completely drape the plant from the top all the way to the ground.
- Apply the cloth right before sundown to make sure the cloth gathers the heat produced in the ground during the day.
- Don’t leave any openings in the cloth for the warm air to escape or cold air to enter at night.
- It is crucial that the frost cloth touches the ground, to the drip line of the plant.
Placing a heavy object like bricks or securing the fabric into the ground with frost fabric staples will ensure that the cloth forms a seal with the ground and traps the warm air that radiates from the soil that is captured during the day. The bricks or staples will also secure the cloth in the case of heavy winds and/or rain, reducing the chances of it blowing away.
The following are general instructions for covering plants, regardless of what you use:
- Do cover your plants with frost cloths, burlap, or muslin for protection against bitter winds.
- Do use concrete bricks or blocks to hold down the material around the plant’s base. Follow manufacturer’s instructions for securing a frost cloth.
- Do remove coverings in the morning. Manufacturers’ instructions for frost cloths may indicate they can be left on, but this doesn’t take Florida’s sunny winter days into account.
- Don’t wrap the covering too tightly around the plant. It crushes the foliage and breaks the stems.
- Don’t prune any freeze damage until the last freeze has passed. The shock of freezing and pruning combined can be enough to kill the plant.
- Don’t leave coverings on for more than two or three mornings in a row.
- Don’t fertilize. Fertilizer promotes new growth, which will only wither in the cooler temperatures.
You may be wondering how to protect potted plants and container gardens that are too heavy to move indoors or to a sheltered outdoor area. ASI Landscape Management recommends congregating them together as much as possible, then covering them in groups. When temperatures rise, uncover and separate the containers and return them to their original places.
The Take-Home Message
Even though we don’t have to contend with snow, winter in Central Florida poses its own set of challenges for keeping your plants healthy and your landscape beautiful. Our blog post — “How to Winterize Your Central Florida Lawn” — provides many more tips you’ll find useful!
As you’ve learned, placing plants in areas that both protect them from the elements throughout the year and enhance the aesthetics and function of your property can be tricky. It also can involve a good deal of trial and error that may be expensive and time-consuming. Our professional landscapers at Daniel’s Lawn Service & Pressure Washing are ready to work with you to achieve your goals and bring your vision to life — as well as select and install the best plants, trees and even turfgrass to get the best out of your slice of Central Florida paradise!
Our full-service company provides yard maintenance, tree installation, tree trimming, stump removal, pressure washing and so much more. We take pride in making your lawn the best on the block! Contact us today!