What to do if a big chill is predicted

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Fooled again, huh?

It happens every year. The weather turns warm in May, and the garden centers entice us with newly arrived plants, which we immediately place in the garden. Then, the nights turn cold, and we experience a frost.

Planting before our magic average annual date of last spring frost, June 11, is an invitation to Mother Nature to show us who's in charge -- so a chilling frost is predictable.

If you have plants in pots on the patio, consider moving them to a protected environment such as a cool garage, under the eaves of your house or a greenhouse. If kept outdoors, place a thick layer of sawdust or ground bark around the pot for the night. Those roots are more exposed to cold than roots in the ground.

The most vulnerable plants in your garden will be those planted in open areas that are exposed to the air on all sides, particularly those with northern exposures. If you have hollows or low areas, those also will catch and hold cold air as it sinks toward the ground.

One of the first things to consider during a frost is to make sure the ground around the plants is moist. Soil with moisture in it holds the heat from the day longer and releases more of it to keep plants warmer than dry soil does.

Coverings on plants susceptible to frost are another precaution. Consider burlap, layers of newspaper weighted with rocks, or evergreen boughs to cover the plants. Plastic coverings also are good at keeping heat in, but anywhere the plastic touches the plant may cause frost burn, so use stakes to raise the plastic above the plants' foliage. For small plants, create a tent that traps warm air by covering with a plastic jug or box with a rock placed on top to keep it from blowing away.

Another protection includes walls of water (the commercial kind or plastic jugs filled with water) surrounding tender plants.

Be sure to remove plant coverings the next day, because incoming heat from the sun could become trapped inside the "tent" you've created and injure your plant.

If your plants become damaged by frost, don't be too quick to prune them. This may stimulate new growth, which may be damaged by a later frost. Also, it's easy to mistake some of the damaged foliage as being dead when it is just recovering slowly.

Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or e-mail gardeners@co.routt.co.us

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