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Cold, drought blast Georgia landscapes

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

Just as things were looking up for Georgia gardeners after last month’s rain, it’s freezing. Their drought-stressed plants will be hit hard, says a University of Georgia expert.

“Plants were already whacked pretty good by the drought,” said UGA Extension horticulturist Bob Westerfield. “The rain will help some with our water shortage, but it’s a good thing too late for most plants. This freeze will just make it worse for plants.”

Plants that are already in poor condition when winter weather hits are far more susceptible to damage, Westerfield said. “In drought, stressed plants will loose part of the canopy and some of their roots. They won’t be as strong.”

Plants that are still trying to recover from being so dry, may not have enough potassium or other nutrients that help protect them from winter damage, Westerfield said.

“The recent rain we got will help prevent some further plant damage, but it won’t help with the stress they have already accumulated,” he said. “Most of the rain came at one shot. It’s a good help for the drought and the water supply, but plants can only absorb so much water at one time. So it doesn’t necessarily help plants.”

Plants need moisture to protect them from cold, dry wind just like people do. “You need to get moisture to plants in the winter if you can,” he said. “It’s like trying to avoid chapped lips. You want to keep the cold wind from drying them out and giving them tip burn.”

Plants that are dry in winter are more susceptible to damage in spring.

Another problem Georgia landscapes usually face is rapid temperature change. Plants benefit from gradual cooling that triggers them to become dormant in stages, Westerfield said.

“It has been so warm that they got lulled into a false summer, and they get shocked by this cold,” he said. “I’ve seen some turf that wasn’t even dormant. It will be dormant after this cold.”

Going from warm to cold so fast can cause serious problems. Plants that have cracked due to dry conditions can split and become more damaged during a fast freeze, he said.

There are things you can do to help your plants through winter.

Mulch – That same layer of mulch you put out to conserve moisture can serve as a warm blanket to protect plant roots from freeze.

Don’t fertilize – Hold off on fertilizing except winter annuals like pansies.

Prune – If you see drought or freeze damage on plants, prune them. Prune plants to shape and size, too. Cut back to clean, green tissue. It can save on water needs down the road. The best time to prune in Georgia is the first week of February.

Radical pruning won’t help save water. “Good, healthy, clean cuts done at the right time of year is best,” he said.

For more tips on protecting your landscape from freeze, go to http://pubs.caes.uga.edu/caespubs/pubcd/C872.htm or call your local UGA Extension agent at 1-800-ASK-UGA1.

(Faith Peppers is a news editor for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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