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frost damaged lantana shrub

 Got brown and crispy plants? Put down your pruners if winter has not ended yet! 

Are you having a hard time ignoring them the ugliness of the frost-damaged leaves? Or perhaps you have no problem with some brown spots in your garden.  

There has been some discussion on my social media pages from people asking if they can safely prune back their plants now and I know that some of you are just itching to get outside with either your hedge-trimmers, loppers or hand pruners. 

Well, before you pick up your pruning tool of choice – I have some important advice for you.

DON’T!!!
Okay, was that obvious enough? You may be asking why you can’t go outside and prune away that brown ugly stuff in your garden.
 
Well, the answer is that you can eventually prune it away, just not now.

There are three very good reasons not to prune back your frost-damaged plants during the winter.

1. Oftentimes, the brown, dead looking branches are not dead on the inside. The warm temperatures of spring will stimulate new growth in much of the dead-looking branches. If you prune your plants too early, you may be removing live branches.
 
 New growth in March.
 2.  In general, pruning stimulates plants to produce new growth. Many gardeners make the mistake of pruning too early before the threat of cold temperatures has passed and then a period of freezing temperatures occurs, which not only kills the new growth but can even result in the death of your plant.
 
3.  The brown and crispy stuff actually protects the interior and sometimes the lower foliage of your plant from further cold damage.
 

So, I hope these reasons help to convince you to turn a blind eye to your brown and crispy plants for a little while.

Once the threat of frost is over, you can go ahead and prune away to your heart’s content 🙂
 
But, beware of giving in to the temptation to start pruning a little early.  You never know when a late frost will hit. Sometimes just when you think that there is nothing but warm weather ahead, a late frost can sneak up on you.  If you aren’t sure you can keep yourself from pruning your plants too early, ask someone you trust to lock up your pruners until the threat of frost is over 😉
 
geraniums in Arizona garden

Salmon-colored geraniums

I learned this lesson the hard way. Years ago, I was in charge of decorating with plants for a large event. I purchased 100 potted geraniums and arranged them expertly with my crew in late February. The night before the event, we had a late frost that damaged every single geranium and we have to rapidly replace them. I should have used a plant that was more cold hardy.

So, maybe you can’t stand having frost-damaged plants in your garden anymore. If that is the case, I have an assignment for you…..

Take a drive through your neighborhood and those close by as well.  Look at your neighbor’s front landscapes and see what plants are still green and did not suffer any frost-damage.

The yucca, desert spoon, and pygmy date palm all did well while the trailing lantana did not.

 The ficus tree fared poorly while the tipu tree did well.

When looking around, you will find exceptions. Some plants that normally would suffer frost damage look healthy and green.

 

As you can see, there is a large blue palo verde tree with a ‘Torch Glow’ bougainvillea underneath to the right.  You may note that this bougainvillea did not suffer frost damage.

Why?
The overhanging branches of the palo verde tree provided some protection from the cold temperatures.  
 
This knowledge can be quite helpful to you if you like having frost-tender plants in your garden but don’t like the brown and crispy winter look. By placing plants such as lantana and bougainvillea underneath a tree with filtered shade, you can oftentimes skip the ugly, winter stage.
pruning plants
Before you know it, winter will have passed and you can grab your pruners and get busy in the garden!

 It’s about to get really cold…

Well, cold for this area of the Desert Southwest.  Temperatures are predicted to dip into the 20’s for a few days, which is quite cold for zone 9a.

As a result, I am being asked by quite a few people about what they should do to prepare their semi-tropical plants for the cold temperatures.


The best thing you can do is to cover your frost-tender plants.  Do this in the evening and don’t uncover them the following day until temperatures are 50 degrees or above.  Recover them later in the day if another freeze is expected.

Earlier this week, I wrote about how to protect your plants during a normal winter freeze (30 degrees and above).  You do have the choice to protect your plants or not.  I mentioned that I only protect my high-profile Lantana near my front entry.

BUT, when temperatures are forecast to fall into the 20’s for a few days, I start pulling out all my old linens, including my kid’s old character bed sheets…


I cover most of my semi-tropical plants including my other lantana, young citrus tree, yellow bells, bougainvillea and pink trumpet vine.

The reason for this is that I don’t want my plants killed to the ground by the frost, which can happen when temperatures dip into the 20’s for a few days.

You see, frost damage can be cumulative with each additional night of freezing temps, creating more damage to plants.

So, if you have frost cloth – use it.  If you don’t, then start raiding your linen closet and pull out towels, sheets, tablecloths, etc.  Believe it or not, even newspaper can provide some protection.  Just anchor it down with rocks to keep it from blowing away.  (I once used canned foods from my pantry to anchor frost blankets 😉

What you shouldn’t use is plastic.

Also, if you want to protect your plants – you have do better then this person did…


What they ended up with was plants with green areas, surrounded by brown, crispy frost-damaged growth.  You need to cover the entire plant with no gaps.

Watering you plants at dusk also helps because water releases heat into the night.


If you have columnar cacti, then protect the ends using styrofoam cups.

Young citrus trees should also be protected….


So what do you do if you didn’t protect your plants and they look like this afterward?


Relax, first of all.  More then likely, it is still alive at the base and will grow back once spring arrives.

Whatever you do, DON’T prune them now!  That can damage or even kill your plant.  I know it is ugly, but it is only until spring when you can prune all the frost-damaged foliage away.

**Even if you protect your plants from frost, there can still be some frost damage that occurs.  It all depends on the severity and duration of the cold.  But, covering them increases the chance that they will recover once temperatures warm up in spring.

You would think that living in the larger Phoenix area means that we do not get cold weather.  That is what I thought….before I moved here.  I was surprised to find that we get quite a bit colder in the winter then Southern California where I grew up.

Well, the cold weather has certainly arrived at my house.  Last night it dropped into the 20’s with two more nights of the same temps to come. 

I do like an excuse to pull out my big sweaters, but I must confess that I just love the comfort of wearing old jeans, slippers and a hooded sweatshirt around the house.  

Right now in my closet, I have two sweatshirts….one from my first college, Westmont (they have some of the most beautiful landscaping).  The other is my USC (University of Southern California) sweatshirt that my dad bought for me 4 years ago.  I did not attend USC, but my dad did and he was a die hard SC fan until his death 3 years ago.   I always feel closer to him whenever I put on my USC sweatshirt which is why I am wearing it now.

What I do not have in my closet is a ASU (Arizona State University) sweatshirt.  It is kind of sad really…..I mean I graduated from ASU and it is only about 30 minutes from my home.  **I think I need to add this to my Christmas list – what do you think about a zip-up sweatshirt with ASU across the front?

This morning as I drove through my neighborhood, I found an interesting assortment of items from my neighbor’s linen closets decorating their front gardens.

Most of us know what happens if you do not cover your frost-sensitive plants when temps dip into the lower 30’s….they turn brown.  
Bougainvillea and Lantana are some of the most common plants that will suffer from frost damage if not protected.  To be honest, it is no big deal if you do not want to cover your plants.  You just have to be okay with them looking crispy and brown until spring begins warmer temperatures.

Frost Damaged Lantana, north of Phoenix
 
Most years, I do not bother to cover my Lantana and I never cover my Bougainvillea and Yellow Bells shrubs.  But for some reason, this year I decided that I did not want to look at brown Lantana and so I covered them.
I covered the parts of my Gold Lantana that are not protected by the overhang of my house.  It is so nice to find a purpose for my mismatched towels in addition to using them for washing our cars.
Can you tell that I borrowed my son’s old bedroom sheets as well?  Kai had progressed from Superman sheets up to Transformers.
You will probably not be surprised to find that I have emptied much of my linen closet.  I have not included photos of my other covered shrubs, where I even brought out some old blankets.
Ideally, you should take off the coverings in the morning and put back on in the evening, but I am too lazy to do that and it really doesn’t hurt my plants to have them on for 2 – 3 days in a row.  Any longer then that though, I take them off during the day.   Phoenix averages 15 days of frost, but in outlying areas – including where I live, it can be more. 
 
 Right now, I like the idea of protecting my Lantana, but if we get a lot of freezing temps, I may give up and make my peace with having brown plants for a few months ;-).
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?  
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”.
 
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.
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.
This Bougainvillea enjoys protection from the eaves of the house.
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.