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Desert Gardening

Preparing Your Garden for Winter


reparing your garden for winter not only keeps your garden beautiful throughout the winter months, it also ensures a healthy garden once spring arrives. It’s a good idea to think about the needs of your outdoor plants during the winter months regardless of your garden variety. Since the Phoenix valley area usually gets 8-9 hours of sunlight per day during the winter, gardeners will often plant a wide variety of plants which may not be suitable to the low temperatures of the winter nights. You must plan to winterize your garden in advance, especially if you have young plants or an annual plant garden.  

Preparing for Winter despite Living in a Desert

The temperature rarely drops below freezing in the valley but is still possible. Frost can occur overnight even if your thermometer never drops below freezing. The general conditions for a “hard freeze”, when the plant completely freezes, is that the temperature drops to at least 28℉ for 5 hours. Some plants in your garden may survive a hard freeze but other plants are susceptible to setbacks at temperatures as low as even 40℉. These include young plants, some vegetables, and annual plants. In Phoenix, the more realistic scenario is that your plants will suffer from cold damage which might damage the plant’s overall health. A plant might take weeks or months to recover from this.

Cold damage hurts the plant when temperatures go below freezing, because the water inside the plant starts to freeze and expand. The freezing dehydrates the plant cells and the expansion damages the cell walls. After cold damage occurs, the damaged parts of the plant will wilt and eventually fall off the plant. 

Protecting Plants from the Cold

There are many ways to prepare your garden for winter, but one of the best solutions is to create a cold shelter for your plants. A cold shelter is simply a frost cloth supported by a frame that can fit the area of your garden. Frost cloth is typically made from polyester or polypropylene and is used to prevent frost from forming on your plants, while also adding an extra layer of insulation.  

Frost cloth can help protect your plants from everything but the most extreme hard freezes. Some gardeners elect to drape the frost cloth over the bushes and shrubs in your garden, but this method may injure young plants and limits room to grow. Another option is to make your own frame out of a material such as PVC pipe. There are many designs you may use; the only constraints being that the cold frame shelter must be completely enclosed and there should be room for wintertime growth. If making your own shelter doesn’t appeal to you, there are many options online to choose from that will fit your design or aesthetic needs. Remember to remove frost cloths in the morning a bit after dawn.

Winter is Coming

There are other steps you can take to ready your garden for winter to be fully prepared. Of course, a cold shelter would be sufficient to keep your garden alive until the spring. To get the most out of the growing season, you should go the extra mile. The first thing you should do is de-weed your entire garden. This helps to reduce the number of competitors for the plants you care about during the slow growth period of the winter. Also, remove any individual vegetables or annuals that are at the end of their life cycle so as not to invite any pests or diseases that may reside in the dead organic matter. For this reason, cut back any dead or dying parts of a plant before winter comes.

Time to Fertilize

You should begin to fertilize your garden with a slow-release fertilizer about 6 weeks before the first freeze. This can be completed anytime between Halloween and Thanksgiving in the Phoenix area. You will likely only need to fertilize once during the winter because there’s less growth during the winter months. It’s hard for us to predict when the growing season will begin precisely, so having the unused nutrients from the fertilizer will benefit the gardens productivity. After a period of rapid growth, you’ll be able to plan when you should fertilize your garden next.

Mulching your Garden is only Half the Battle

Mulching your garden in the fall helps you prepare for winter because it helps prevent soil and root frost by regulating soil temperature. The interesting benefit to this is that it also reduces soil thaw time. Half the damage of a hard freeze is the rapid thawing of the plant cells after a freeze. Think of pouring boiling water into an ice-cold glass cup. Both the cell walls of a plants cell and the glass cup will shatter. The only way to reduce cold damage induced by root frost is to increase the thaw time. Keep in mind, mulch is only beneficial for non-native plant species and could even be harmful to native species. 

Watering your garden is just as important during the winter as it is in the summer. Your plants will need less water during the winter, as there is less sunlight to allow for growth. One important aspect of water is its ability to regulate temperature and, in this case, its ability to regulate soil temperature. It’s important to lightly water your garden before sunset if the temperatures are predicted to go below 30℉. 

Preparing a raised garden bed, a pot, or a hanging basket isn’t that much different from winterizing a traditional garden bed. Despite this, they are more susceptible to damage from a hard freeze compared to ground plants. The first step is the same for all three, de-weed and remove all dead or dying plants. For a raised garden you should fertilize and add mulch as well. A frost cloth can be draped over the garden bed. If you are afraid of damaging your plants, an inexpensive option is to place sticks in the bed and then drape the frost cloth over them. Flowerpots and hanging baskets are the most susceptible to cold damage if you’re not able to place them indoors for the season. You should fertilize their soil once before winter. Completely cover the plants and flowerpot with a frost cloth with a stick in the pot to prevent the frost cloth from touching the plants. You may cover hanging baskets with a frost cover or cold frame shelter. If you have multiple hanging baskets, group them together on the ground and then cover. Always remember to take the frost cover off your plants during the day, so they can enjoy the sunlight.

Winterizing Your Garden

Readying your garden and outside plants for the winter is a great idea if you want to continue enjoying the fruits of your labor. The benefits of putting in the work early to prepare for the spring will help your plants stay healthy and reduce the amount of work required during winter. The drawback is that it will take some time out of your day to cover and uncover your plants. The monetary cost to buy the frost cloths and/or build a shelter will be negligible compared to the plants you’ll save from cold damage for years to come, as most of these materials will be able to be reused. Here’s to a healthy garden come spring!