Northeast 13

BY TOVAH MARTIN / Raxbury, Connecticut, USDA Zone 5



The Orangerie at Tower Hill Botanic Garden

Trudge through the snows of February to take in the sights and fragrance of winter-blooming plants in the Orangerie at Tower Hill Botanic Garden. Built as a modern interpretation of an 18th-century greenhouse, the Orangerie is a haven for subtropical plants from around the world. Tower Hill Botanic Garden is located at 11 French Drive, Boylston, MA 01505. For more information, visit or call 508-869-6111.

It was a mistake to plant the styrax in the valley. The moist soil there isn’t the problem; in fact, the styrax seems to thrive on poor drainage. What wreaks havoc every year are the late frosts that settle in the lowlands. The styrax has persisted so far, but I have yet to see flowers—every spring, just when they begin to show color, they’re zapped (along with the leaves) by subfreezing temperatures. So are the magnolias. In our neck of the woods (a rather tentative Zone 5), nine years out often, the thermostat plummets the night after a glorious display of breathtaking magnolia blossoms, and we’re greeted by a heart-wrenching show of dangling, smitten flowers the morning after.

Perhaps the magnolias tempted fate. But lately, prudence hasn’t paid off either. Aralia elata and most hydrangeas hold off the serious business of leaf production until chilly weather is past. Such cautious behavior is usually based on the fact that their foliage can’t withstand cold stress. Unfortunately, this means that they become easy targets if a rogue frost sneaks in after the weather has supposedly stabilized. Of course, there’s not much you can do about the weather. But you might think twice before siting such late leafers and tender bloomers in a cold pocket. Instead, consider positioning them in a sheltered location, where they’re buffered from wind, or protected and warmed by a building, a wall, or a grove of trees.

Once they’re in place, trees and shrubs are pretty much on their own in the battle against the elements. But the perennial garden can be defended. In my house, tattered bed linens never get tossed—long after their bedroom duties are done, they’re pressed into service for garden purposes. If a light frost is predicted, I drape them over everything tender, including newly planted perennials and anything with sensitive fresh growth. When a killing frost (20°F or lower) is predicted, I construct a scene that looks like a camp-out, with tents above the garden (using stakes so the sheets aren’t lying directly on the foliage, and securing the edges with bricks or stones against wind gusts). And then I hope for the best.

Sometimes it works; often it doesn’t. My uncle, Richard Logee, swore by another method of security. He set up a sprinkler and kept it running throughout the night. The theory worked fine on a light frost, but failed miserably when temperatures went really low. Because of that danger, it’s not my preferred method of prevention. But if you’re shy a few sheets and the night is likely to totter right on the cusp of frost, by all means, give it a go.

Having experienced more late-spring frosts than I care to recall, I can often predict their onset. When the weather is still, clear, and very chilly in the late afternoon, I ready the sheets for action. But just like the weather forecasters, I don’t always see it coming. Sometimes it just sneaks up on me. I’m no less fallible than anyone else, and have awoken plenty of mornings to behold that bone-chilling sight of a garden blanketed with telltale white lacework. It helps to keep an eye on the weather forecast, or make friends with someone wise who has gardened in your neighborhood for many years. Even then, there’s nothing as fickle as the weather. Plant a magnolia at your own risk. H

First Aid for Frosted Plants


  • If you catch the situation early, you can rush out with a hose or watering can (a spray nozzle works best) and wash the ice crystals off the leaves. This route only works effectively for dawn risers who can perform the drenching before the sun hits the foliage. Once the sun melts the crystals, the tissue damage is done and you’re left with the unsightly consequences. And don’t try to resuscitate frosted potted plants by whisking them into a warm place or toasting them beside a heat source. The sudden change in temperature usually spells disaster.

  • Most perennials will eventually revive after a pouting period, but it’s doom for all but the hardiest annuals. (Snapdragons, marigolds, and a few others turn the other cheek, despite considerable chill.) That glorious Mother’s Day fuchsia, dangling with blossoms, can be blackened in a few fatal hours outdoors. My advice is to keep annuals indoors until after Memorial Day, or bring them in every evening, even if the weather seems to say otherwise. Then, harden off annuals before planting by exposing them to a few nights outdoors in a protected area.

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