Is It Possible To Avoid The Winter Ugly Stage?


Do you ever wonder why some plants go through what I like to call the “Ugly Stage” of winter when they are covered with frost-damaged growth, while the exact same plant(s), located close by do not?  Is their any possible way to avoid this “ugly stage” besides covering your plants during freezing nights?  

frost damaged

My frost-damaged Bougainvillea.  Not too pretty, is it?
It can be cumbersome to cover your plants each night when freezing temperatures are forecast…you have to pay attention to the forecast, rush out in the freezing cold to cover them and hope you have enough old sheets and towels to do the job….or rush to the nursery to buy frost cloth.  And, if you forget to do it for one night, all your hard work the previous nights, was for nothing…

Luckily, there are some easy solutions you can implement in order to avoid this “ugly stage”.

frost damaged

Isn’t it amazing that there is beauty in dead leaves?

Bougainvillea grow very well in the desert, but will suffer from frost damage in the winter months.  Now, I am okay with that….Bougainvillea look beautiful 9 months out of the year and I ignore them for the other 3.  I thought this was just the way things were, until I was driving down a residential street about 10 years ago and saw a beautiful Pink Bougainvillea surrounded by frost damaged ones.  What was so different about this one I wondered?  Well, it was obvious as I looked at it’s surroundings.  This particular Bougainvillea was located underneath the canopy of a Mesquite tree, which protected it from the cold.

frost damaged

This is what my protected Bougainvillea looks like.  The canopy of my Palo Verde tree provides protection from frost damage.

How simple the solution was, I thought.  So, I decided to put this into practice whenever I designed landscapes, including my own.  I would place frost-susceptible plants under trees and underneath the eaves of a house where they would be protected from freezing temperatures.  I would use trees that provided light, filtered shade such as Palo Verde and Mesquite, because many plants will not bloom under heavy shade trees.

frost damaged

This Bougainvillea enjoys protection from the eaves of the house.

frost damaged

Frost damaged Lantana

The same holds true for Lantana.  Out in the open, Lantana does get damaged by the frost.  However, by placing them under the eaves or underneath a tree, they usually escape frost damage.


I designed this area and had the Lantana placed underneath the overhanging eaves of this building.  This photo was taken in January.

So, if you love Bougainvillea, Lantana or other frost-susceptible plants but have avoided using them because you can’t stand their “ugly stage” in the winter – there is hope!  Try planting them underneath the protection of a tree or under the eaves of your home and enjoy year-round green leaves and beautiful flowers.  Or just accept that they will go through their annual 3 month “ugly stage” and focus instead on your winter-flowering plants instead 😉 As this year ends and a new one begins, I would like to thank those of you who have taken the time to read what I write and have left comments as well.  

I wish for all of you a very 
Happy New Year.

Noelle Johnson, aka, 'AZ Plant Lady' is a author, horticulturist, and landscape consultant who helps people learn how to create, grow, and maintain beautiful desert gardens that thrive in a hot, dry climate. She does this through her consulting services, her online class Desert Gardening 101, and her monthly membership club, Through the Garden Gate. As she likes to tell desert-dwellers, "Gardening in the desert isn't hard, but it is different."
18 replies
  1. villager
    villager says:

    Your protected Bougainvillea looks lovely! For us here in zone 6, protected for many plants means indoors. My tropicals will sulk for a bit but I should have some blooms from the hibiscus and bougainvillea before it's time to put them back outdoors.

    Happy New Year to you and your family!

  2. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    Happy New year Noelle, and great suggestions for those with cold winters. My plant losses and "ugly stage" usually occur in the hot summer.

  3. Christine B.
    Christine B. says:

    I had to laugh reading about running for the old sheets when frost was predicted. I am cheap and have never bought a "real" frost cloth. I just use old sheets that we also use as painting drop cloths. They seem to work fine for protecting new annuals from a spring cold snap here in Alaska. Great tip about planting under eaves or trees for protection, I'm going to try it to see if I can extend my (short) season.


  4. debsgarden
    debsgarden says:

    Hi, Noelle, bougainvillea is a beautiful plant, but I always thought it wasn't hardy for my area. Maybe i will take another look. I have a large pot on a covered porch that get a lot of sun- I wonder if one might grow there?

    I have come to appreciate dead leaves and branch structures. Winter is another form of beauty.
    I wish you and your family the best in 2010.

  5. Bangchik
    Bangchik says:

    Uhh.., how simple the solution is.., the plants just need a little bit of shade, not against the sun but the frost!!… Happy New Year!!! ~bangchik and kakdah

  6. susie
    susie says:

    Great idea…I've noticed that too, mostly here the spot is just a little warmer with the protection from the house.
    Happy New Year!

  7. Pam/Digging
    Pam/Digging says:

    Good point, Noelle, as your pics illustrate beautifully. BTW, that trailing purple lantana is much more cold-hardy than the shrub form, and it'll bloom well all winter here in Austin, even where unprotected.

    Have a happy New Year!

  8. Kanak7
    Kanak7 says:

    Very interesting post and images that deal with the subject. the bougainvillea looks lovely.

    Noelle….wishing you the best for 2010. HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

  9. T Opdycke
    T Opdycke says:

    Don't you just hate running outside to frost protect? I only do it if a frost comes too early in the fall. Protective planting really does make a difference.

  10. Familia Valdiviezo
    Familia Valdiviezo says:

    I have a question, right now my bougainvillea is going through the ugly stage…do I leave it? Take the leaves off, cut it back? Or will it just start growing back on its own? I live in Mexico and this is the first time I have had these! Thank you! I don't know what to do! Kristin

  11. amygdala
    amygdala says:

    I'd like to thank you for your wonderfully informative site. Your bougainvillea frost pics look identical to mine in my AZ backyard, even including the block fence. I wasn't sure how to go about trimming the dead vines, since new growth is occurring, but happily, now I do! Thanks again.

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