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Coast Gardener

Mulch plants for winter protection
Coast Gardener Newspaper and Web Column - November 10, 2001

I recently discussed the importance of proper plant selection and nutrition in my column as it relates to cold weather stress. Today, I will talk about the importance of mulching your plants to ward off winter's cold temperatures and icy winds.

It's middle November and temperatures will likely dip into the thirties before too much longer. Inland areas will likely drop below the freezing mark pretty soon, especially if one of those Canadian cold fronts comes blasting into the South tumbling temperatures in its wake. During these first few cold spells, severe damage often results to woody landscape plants that retain their leaves year-round. It is possible, however, to help minimize cold weather damage through proper mulching practices.

Cold weather protection is especially critical for azaleas, boxwoods, camellias, photinias, hollies, and other broadleaf evergreens. These plants do not lose their leaves during the winter, which enables them to continuously release moisture into the air. Needle-leaf evergreens and deciduous woody ornamentals are generally less susceptible to cold weather injury. These types of landscape plants lose their leaves and do not lose water continuously through their leaves.

Although we will not likely face extended cold weather on the Gulf Coast, it is possible for soil in landscape beds to freeze during some winter seasons. When this occurs, roots are unable to pick up water, and broadleaf evergreens may not be able to replace moisture lost through their leaves. Cold temperatures coupled with strong northerly winds make cold weather stress even worse. Sometimes plant death is inevitable.

During the late fall and winter, soak the roots around broadleaf evergreen plants with water every couple of weeks if conditions are dry. Roots that are contained in moist soil are insulated against extreme cold. Dry roots are more likely to suffer from cold damage.

Proper mulching will also help to protect against winter's harsh conditions. Apply mulch to plants after the first hard freeze. Pine straw is perfect and readily available to most people. A 3- to 4-inch layer of straw should be added around the base of the plants. Hardwood mulch or pine bark can be

Mulching is important because it helps the soil retain moisture and protects roots against the cold. It also serves as a blanket of insulation that can keep the soil from freezing during periods of extended cold temperatures.

Remember, however, to mulch immediately after the first freeze. Applying mulch too early may prevent plants from becoming fully dormant. This dramatically increases the chance of cold damage.

Finally, it is important not to pile too much mulch around plants. Excessive amounts of mulch piled around the stems of boxwoods, hollies, photinias, and other broadleaf evergreens can trap too much moisture. This could lead to root rot and other problems in the springtime.

Take care to pamper you plants this fall. Your plants will thank you should freezing temperatures be in the offering during the upcoming months.

On another note, I want to invite gardeners to the 50th Annual Mississippi Gulf Coast Camellia Show on November 17 & 18 at the Orange Grove/Lyman Community Center in Gulfport. The show will be open to the public between 2 and 5 p.m. both days. Hundred of beautiful camellia blooms will be on display. Camellia experts will also be on hand to answer your questions. Admission is free. Join the Gulf Coast Camellia Society as they celebrate their Golden Anniversary show!

These archived gardening columns were written by Chance McDavid, former Harrison County Extension Agent.