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For plants bitten by the cold, time to start healing

January 18, 2007|Lili Singer | Special to The Times

THE recent blast of record-breaking arctic weather didn't just devastate commercial agricultural crops. It damaged backyard plants too. Geraniums turned to gelato. Aloe leaves disintegrated like spilled Slushees.

What can home gardeners do to save an injured plant? And how can they protect against another cold snap, if it comes?

In terms of frostbitten flora, the most important task is to exercise patience. Remove foliage that's blackened, soft and withered, and toss it before fungus starts to grow. But hold off on major pruning. Only time will show the extent of the die-back, and gardeners who wait now can prune with precision later, without harming buds and other harbingers of future life.

If you're not sure about the health of a tree or shrub, scratch the bark with your fingernail. In virtually all cases, the tissue under the bark should be cream or green and should be moist. In some perennials and ground covers, only the top foliage may have frozen. The undergrowth might be OK.

The next time the forecast predicts extreme cold, move container plants indoors or under eaves. The temperature close to the house is often 10 degrees warmer than out in the open.

Wrap other sensitive plants. If you lay a sheet atop plants, remove it first thing in morning, so they soak up the sun. If you erect a plastic tent, take it down before the contraption turns into a miniature greenhouse and overheats.

Young tropical and subtropical fruit trees -- citrus, mango, guava, avocado -- need particular attention. Wrap their trunks with burlap or corrugated cardboard.

Some experts suggest removing thick mulches, which may insulate the ground from the sun during the day and prevent the soil from warming up. Once the threat of freezing passes, the mulch can go back.

If all this icy weather has you down, remember: Some stone fruit trees actually need winter chill to ensure a good harvest, and cole crops such as collard greens and kale will only get sweeter as the thermometer drops.

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