Mistakes are easy to make when preparing your plants for winter

Published on: November 21, 2013

plants_cococreedyardBy PENNY FLETCHER

Sometimes, putting a cover over your plants during cold weather can harm them more than it helps. Crowding pots the too close together on a porch or garage so they can help warm each other can also do damage.

If you do it wrong, that is.

“Many people think they can put plastic right on top of their plants and protect them,” said Nicole Pinson from the Florida Yards and Neighborhoods Program of the Hillsborough County Extension Service. “But if the plastic is laid right on the plants, touching them, it can actually conduct the cold right into the plants and kill them.”

Using plastic or tarps is all right if they are staked up so they have a “greenhouse effect.” But even then, they need to be uncovered as soon as daylight comes so the sun can warm them again.

Blankets, cardboard boxes, anything layered is better, Pinson added. Putting a heat bulb under the blanket — being careful not to touch it so it doesn’t catch fire — helps, too.

Getting ready now by collecting boxes and blankets, before any freezes hit, is a good idea.

Plants in containers are especially vulnerable, she said.

“Bring them inside the garage if you can, or group them together and cover them with blankets, but be sure to get them back into the sunshine in the morning even if it’s still cold because they need the sunlight. And don’t put them so close their leaves crowd.”

Gail Hubbell agrees, and adds that one of the worst things people can do when preparing for winter is to allow any green fronds to be cut off their palm trees.

Hubbell has been in the nursery business in Ruskin for 27 years, but Hubbell’s Nursery on College Avenue in Ruskin has been in the South County area more than 50 years.

Gail Hubbell’s husband David’s father started the business in St. Petersburg but was recruited by Sun City Center’s first developer, Del E. Webb, when Webb began landscaping Sun City Center. Webb started with cow pasture and had to get someone who knew the land.

“David’s dad started on this side of the Bay with Sun City Center, and we’ve been in business here ever since,” Gail Hubbell said.

This definitely makes the Hubbells experts.

“Landscapers go around telling people they need to ‘hurricane cut’ their palms, and also trim them before winter,” she said in an interview Nov. 15. “But actually, this is the worst thing you can do. In fact, you can kill the palms by doing this.”

In a separate interview, Pinson agreed.

“The palms need every bit of energy they can get to make it through the winter. The fronds provide the nutrients to the bud that grows directly out of the top. If a palm has 20 or 30 fronds and 15 are cut off, that’s taking away the ability to store all those nutrients from the soil and sunlight,” Hubbell said. “There should never be green fronds or palm leaves being taken to the dump. Only a completely brown frond should ever be removed. Taking green fronds off is like taking away 1,500 calories of a person’s 2,000 calorie diet.”

Hubbell said to picture the face of a clock. “Think of where the 9 and the 3 are. Fronds need to stay above that level, never be cut from above it.”

Winter is hard on container plants, too.

Leaves of large canopy plants (especially in containers) may be damaged if they are pushed together to share warmth for too long a time, Pinson added. “Crowding is bad.”

Bringing them into the garage for the night is good, but returning them to the outside in the morning is crucial. Another tip offered by Pinson is to make sure plants are watered well before the cold night temperature hits.

Another thing we can do to prepare for winter is to begin composting for next year’s garden, Pinson said. This is something that can be done year-round.

Not just leaves and grass and other yard waste, but coffee grounds, vegetable peels and cores, leftover foods, except for meat, make really good compost.

“It’s a form of double-recycling,” Pinson said. “It replenishes the earth, while diminishing what goes in the trash.”

Keeping a bowl with a lid for this purpose and dumping it outside where the garden is expected to be grown, or around existing plants, or just making a compost pile to use at a  later date, are all methods encouraged by the extension service.

“We teach composting and a lot of other things in cooperation with the University of Florida,” Pinson said.

To find out more about these or other extension classes, visit