Arctostaphylos silvicola 'Ghostly', against the warm south end of the house.

No, I'm not talking about someone who runs quickly over short distances. I'm talking about that peculiar intergrade between spring and winter, where mild temperatures signal plants to awaken from dormancy, but the threat of frost still looms large. Such frosts, hitting tender emerging shoots, can be more damaging to plants than colder temperatures experienced while plants are still fully dormant. When these frosts threaten, it's up to the gardener to decide what action, if any, to take.

It's been an incredibly mild winter in the Pacific Northwest. November brought two 18F freezes to my garden, but since then it's been very warm. January saw nights with lows in the upper 40's, very unusual for here. I did get one low of around 27F last week, and a couple other mild frosts between 30F and 32F. Roughly 60 miles to the south and about 450' closer to sea level (except for the hills, obviously), some parts of Portland have only experienced a single frost all winter, and not even a very cold one.
Ceanothus dentatus 'Bluette', beginning to bloom in late January in my garden.

These mild winters, particularly with warmer overnight lows, can cause many plants to wake up early. As they emerge from dormancy, they become more susceptible to frost. This isn't such a problem with really hardy plants like hellebores and snowdrops. Adapted to winter/early spring blooming, their flowers can endure significant frost. And, well, flowers are temporary, anyway. Losing blooms to frost damage just doesn't worry me that much. I am much more conerned with damage to tender new shoots and foliage.
An un-named Helleborus x hybridus on one of the rare sunny days in the last few weeks.

The previous two winters, my garden experienced an 18F freeze in mid to late February, after many plants had begun to grow. The list includes Mahonia, Corylopsis, Pieris, Fuchsia, and many more. They all outgrew any damage, but some were delayed more than others, most notably the fuchsias. I don't usually bother protecting plants in the ground, but after two years of late frosts I do really want to see what my fuchias can do when they haven't been set back by late frosts.

I added many fuchsias to the garden last year, and mulched around the base of most of them in fall to protect the comparatively young plants in case of a bad winter. I didn't bother protecting my older fuchsias. So naturally, what do I see at the end of January but shoots emerging from their bases with frost in the forecast. Those are easy enough to protect. A couple shovel-fulls of compost over them and they're fine. What amazed me were the two fuchsias that hadn't been killed to the ground in the 18F November freezes, aside from Fuchsia regia, which has never been killed to the ground in the 3 years I've grown it. 'Genii', not pictured, is one of my oldest fuchsias and has always died to the ground. Perhaps November freezes aren't as damaging as late February freezes, or perhaps the Fargesia robusta 'Wenchuan' which will overwhelm it in 2 or 3 years time gave it enough shelter to prevent it dying back. Either way, it has buds swelling all up and down the stems. Even more amazing, 'Logan Wood', pictured below, is one of the plants I added last summer. Its first year, and it's leafing out almost to the very tips of the branches.

Look at all those bits of green! This is a very hardy and exceptionally beautiful fuchsia, though it apparently doesn't bloom well in containers. I definitely want to see what it's capable of this year, so I will make the effort to protect it from late frosts.

First, a stake for additional support, as the stems are fairly thin and brittle on this young plant. Snow was also in the forecast, which would add weight to any covering.

Tie a string to the stake...

And wrap it up around the plant, gently bringing it around the branches and pulling it just tight enough to make the plant narrow enough to fit the burlap over.

Slip the burlap over the whole thing, and done. It won't protect from really serious freezes, but it will do for the frosts in my forecasts, down to about 27 or 28F. Old blankets or frost cloth would offer more protection. I repeated this process with 'Genii', with an additional wrap of black plastic over the burlap, because I had it on hand and wanted to give 'Genii' a little more protection since it's not quite as hardy as 'Logan Wood'. I know, this is nothing ground-breaking. It's just a simple, rather lazy effort that provides a degree or two of protection.

Aside from the fuchsias, I'm not worried about much, but I do have a few ferns planted in the fall that are producing new croziers already, and I don't want these new additions to experience setbacks, so I tossed some mulch over them, as well.

And that's all for this week. I struggled a bit to come up with a topic this week, and actually had another planned, but by the time I thought of it I knew I wouldn't have enough time to write about it and do it justice. I'm trying to get into the habit of weekly posts, so better a short one than none at all. I also didn't have much chance to get out to take photos for a different post the last couple weeks, as it's been extremely wet (January saw nearly double the average precipitation after a historically dry fall). Here's hoping your garden is having a wonderful late winter season, and let's have an early spring (unless you're in the south and want to hold off the death star and dry season as long as possible).


  1. Yes. Almost all of my fuchsia bushes are putting on growth from last year's stems. I found that if I don't cut them back by half or tie them up, by mid-summer they will flop. I still have my cache of blankets at the ready if the weather betrays us.

    1. My 'Logan Wood' is pretty flimsy. Definitely should cut it down a bit. Some of the stems on 'Genii' are quite stout.

  2. In the Death Star zone here the hope is that some of your region's Wet Grey shifts southward.

    You did a fine job on that Fuchsia. I just watched the Monty Don show on Japan and how they rig snow protection for old Pines. Pretty impressive, though it also leaves one amazed at the skill level of the labor involved--very, very high. Here we expect illiterate immigrants to care for our plants, and pay them accordingly.

    1. I hope you get some rain! We finally caught up in January after an absurdly dry fall. We can afford to send some south now. The amount of labor and skill in Japanese horticulture boggles the mind, but I do wish we could prioritize plants and maintenance in general the same way here in America.

  3. I hope the fuchsias live up to your expectations. Protecting plants against cold weather is a foreign concept here but, with heatwaves becoming more vicious, I've come to realize that rigging up temporary shade can make a huge difference. I haven't found a way to protect our lemon tree but it seems to have developed its own coping mechanism, dropping every single piece of fruit when temperatures reach 105F or higher and starting over again once it recovers from the shock.

    1. I will hope that we are all spared the grueling heatwaves this summer, but I won't hold my breath.

  4. A short post is much (much!) better then no post :-D
    There aren't fuchsia in my garden, probably because I can't deal with plants that aren't hardy enough. It simply breaks my heart and I'm done losing plants to zone challenges and capriciousness. Hellebore on the other hand, is perfectly suited. I wish the un-named Helleborus hybrid had a name: such perfect shape and unusual color. The arctostaphylos though, is by far the one my heart covets the most: there is no match to the stunning contrast of the branches and leafs and the beautiful structure.

    1. What zone are you in? There are many very hardy fuchsias. Not the basket types. Most of those aren't hardy. The hellebore looks especially good because it's backlit by the sun. It's still nice, but much darker when not backlit.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts