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Updated Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 08:17 AM

How to help your plants give winter the cold shoulder

By Ciscoe Morris
Special to The Seattle Times

In the Garden

The brutal winters of the last few years have done in so many borderline hardy plants that even a few serious plant collectors gave up trying to grow them. I’m glad I didn’t go that route, because the Hebes, Phormiums, Callistemons, Grevilleas and several other semi-hardy shrubs are real standouts in my winter garden.

You can successfully grow these rare gems, but only if you’re willing to protect them from extreme cold. Begin by adding thick mulch around the base of the plant to protect the roots from freezing. Then if temperatures in the 20s are forecast, cover your plant with a bedsheet, mattress pad or Frost Protek — a lightweight, breathable plant cover made for this purpose (available through home/garden companies).

Make sure whatever you use covers the entire plant. Most covers only make about a 4-degree difference, but usually that’s enough to keep the plant alive. Only cover the plant during freezing weather, and remove it as soon as possible once milder temperatures return.

Make sure to pound stakes in the ground around the plant to hold the cover over the plant. It’s a real bummer to save your plant from the cold, only to find it’s been flattened like a pancake by a snow-laden mattress pad.

Disinfecting pruning tools

Throughout my gardening career, the accepted practice has been to dip your pruners in a solution of about 1 part chlorine bleach to 3 parts water after each cut while pruning a plant that you suspect might be diseased.

In her book “The Informed Gardener,” Linda Chalker-Scott, a Washington State University professor at Puyallup Research and Extension Center, points out that bleach isn’t a good choice. Chlorine bleach poses health risks, ruins tools and can be harmful to the plant if residue remains on the pruners.

Straight Lysol is a much better choice. It’s inexpensive, moderately safe to use and is much less harmful to tools. Keep in mind that to be effective, tools must be kept in good shape. Disinfectants don’t work well on dirty, pitted tools.

Be aware that all disinfectants can harm plant tissue. Any time you disinfect, wipe off any excess before making another cut, and never apply disinfectant directly to a tree wound unless it’s made for that purpose.

Finally, in my opinion, unless you’re pruning a plant with a disease known to be highly infectious, there are few diseases that require disinfecting between every cut. As long as you avoid cutting into obvious diseased tissue or oozing sap, it’s usually adequate to disinfect only before you move on to prune the next plant.

I confess that since I don’t have any seriously diseased plants in my garden, I only disinfect my tools about once a week, when I give them a good cleaning.

Ciscoe Morris: ciscoe@ciscoe.com “Gardening With Ciscoe” airs at 10 a.m. Saturdays on KING-TV.



Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Garnettii’ is one of those plants that needs protection when temperatures fall.




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