Gardening: What to do when the weather turns cold

Eileen Ward

I hope everyone had a pleasant Thanksgiving with family or friends. After 35 years here, I still find warm sunny weather a bit of a turn off for the holidays and long for the cool and dreary weather of December. I’m not usually disappointed.

Clover covered in frost

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The winter month of December is upon us which means much colder temperatures. In December we are more likely to have a frost or even the occasional freeze. There can be little rain, so using your irrigation system will still be necessary; however, the cooler temperatures, with highs only in the 70's, mean this is the time of year you can save big on those water bills. Watering once a week or even once every other week will keep your lawns and gardens green and help reduce the chance of disease.

If you haven't applied your fall fertilizer to lawn, shrubs and trees, you should do so as soon as possible. Healthy, well-fed plants will be better able to withstand a frost or freeze. As plants react to the cold they will slow their uptake of nutrients from the soil, making it important to fertilize before the really cold weather.

The rate of growth for everything will slow dramatically. Lawns should be cut every 10 to 14 days instead of every seven. Shrubs should not be severely pruned again until spring; tender new growth would be susceptible to damage from cold. Light pruning can still be done as necessary, but if you suspect a frost or freeze is on the way, it's probably best to avoid pruning. Cold weather can be very stressful to our tropical plants; the act of mowing and pruning is another stress the plants don't need.

One exception to severe December pruning is the rose bush. December and January are months when rose bushes should have a major pruning. This is important to keep rose bushes in shape and promote blooming. Remove all dead and diseased canes and those crowding and rubbing against better canes.

This is also a good month to plant. Flower and vegetable gardens can be planted if you haven't already done so. Also, planting or transplanting shrubs and trees now allows for good root development as top growth is minimal, allowing the plant to concentrate on growing roots. The same is true for sod, and the reduced water requirements means less irrigation will be needed to establish new turf. This is the ideal time to sod those spots in the swale from the hurricane debris piles.

Insects and diseases are not as active, but they're still out there, so pay attention and treat if needed. Watch for gray leaf spot, brown patch and chinch bugs on lawns. Overwatering during the cooler weather can encourage disease as the rate of evaporation is greatly reduced, leaving water on plant surfaces and in the soil much longer. This is the environment fungal spores thrive in, and that's another good reason to turn your sprinklers back. Lawns may turn brown in December from both cold damage and disease if watered too often. A light feeding of ammonium sulfate will usually return it to a nice green color within a week or two.

Some of the fruits to enjoy in December include hamlin and pineapple oranges, tangerines, minneola tangelos (although these are much sweeter in another month), calamondins, avocados, kumquats and certain varieties of banana.