Gardening Tips

9 Tips for Keeping Outdoor Plants Alive When the Temps Dip

Photo: Getty Images/ Westend61
While it’s generally easy to tend to outdoor plants in the summer and spring—or in places with temperate or warmer climates year-round—it’s still totally possible to keep yours alive long enough to see another growing season when the temps start to fall by following some of the best winter plant care tips.

To that end, we’ve asked a professional green thumb how you can help your outdoor plant survive during cold months. These are his go-to practices for doing just that.

1. Be wary of excess water build-up

“Plants can often survive sub-zero temperatures but only if their roots are well-drained, since when water sits in the roots, it rots them,” says Clive Harris, gardening expert and founder of DIY Garden, one of the United Kingdom's top gardening blogs, adding that it’s common for plants to get water logged in winter when there’s less sunlight. “It's the top reason plants die during winter—not the cold,” he says. As a result, your best bet is to drain your plants regularly, or wait longer than normal in between waterings if you’ve received a lot of rain or snow.

2. If possible, keep plants out of extreme cold and precipitation

“Plants contain a lot of liquid in their cells, which can freeze, and then frost crystals can puncture membranes, which effectively kills the plant,” says Harris. Overwatered plants are more prone to frost split, so be sure to only water them as needed and to drain them after any exposure to heavy precipitation, and bring outdoor plants inside if you can before big freezes.

3. Prep your plants for temperature drops earlier in the year

“Unhealthy plants are more susceptible to disease and winter weather, as weak plants simply can’t cope with sub-zero temperatures, harsh winds, and freezing rain,” Harris says. So, give your plants regular hydration and nutrients, like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, all of which are found in healthy soil (along with carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen). “Don’t let them dry out and be sure to feed them with liquid plant food in the spring,” says Harris. “Good care throughout the growing season will ensure plants are healthy enough to withstand winter,”

4. Do a mulch application

A thick layer of mulch can be a major booster for plant health and safety during a chilly fall and especially during winter, when there's potential exposure to snowfall and frost. “An application of mulch, such as spent compost or organic matter, at the beginning of winter soaks up excess rainwater and stops your plants from getting waterlogged and then frozen,” says Harris.

5. Consider your zone before planting

Unfortunately, not all plants you might want to keep in your garden are going to work well in your particular climate and zone. (To find yours, check out the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.) “Plants are imported from all across the world, and non-native plants may not suit your local conditions,” says Harris.

So, while it may be disappointing in the moment, it’s best to follow the rules and avoid wasting the time, energy, money, and emotional pain of buying plants that ultimately aren't suited for your area. Instead, plant something that’s more likely to thrive and live longer from the get-go.

6. Choose native plants for less maintenance

If you know you won't have much time to tend to your plants, picking plants that require less attention and care will guarantee a longer lifespan. In the same way that you might choose plants based on the USDA zone in which you live (see above), you should also go for plants that are native to your region to ensure they'll thrive year-round with minimal effort on your end.

“When you’re selecting plants at the nursery, choose native plants that are able to cope with your local winter conditions, as more often than not, natives can be left without any special winter care simply because they suit the area,” says Harris.

7. Plant in the ground instead of in a container if you can

Imagine a plant with its roots tucked into the soil. The soil provides a thick blanket of insulation and allows water to run off, which helps avoid excess moisture, while still allowing the plant to be sufficiently hydrated.

By contrast, “plants in a container don’t have this protection, and they're more prone to water-logging. Then, cold temperatures can attack them from the sides and below, simply because the containers just aren’t warm enough,” says Harris.

8. Avoid planting in the spring until after the last frost

One of the best winter plant care tips is simply getting the timing right come spring. “Roots need warm, damp soil to grow and spread, and they can’t do it in the cold, hard ground, so wait until it’s warmed up a bit,” says Harris.

9. Protect your plants from frost

Frost will damage plant cells, and, again, contribute to water-logging, which will kill plants swiftly. So, whenever there is frost present, you should not only wait before planting any new seeds, but also, take care of the plants you already have in the ground or in containers by shielding them from exposure.

Use covers, such as plant cloches and tunnels, if you are working with a larger area. Or DIY your own instead of buying them online. “You can make covers from plastic milk cartons, as long as you just wash them thoroughly,” says Harris. “Slice the lid end off and place it over a tender plant. It stops frost layering itself on the plant and prevents cell rupture,” he says.

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