Northwest falls and winters are unpredictable. You just never know when that killing frost is going to hit. (Getty Images)

Northwest falls and winters are unpredictable. You just never know when that killing frost is going to hit. (Getty Images)

Five easy ways to protect your garden from damaging freezes

You just never know when that hard killing frost is going to hit. But if you aren’t ready for it, you might suffer serious losses.

Winters in the Northwest can be unpredictable. As I look around my neighborhood, I can still see trees (like my neighbor’s corkscrew willow) that are green as grass and completely foliated, while next to them are maples that are fully denuded of all their summer leaves.

My hostas have mushed down to nothing, but the roses are still blooming. Such is the nature of our Northwest falls and winters. You just never know when that killing frost is going to hit — but if you are not ready to deal with it, then you very well might suffer some serious losses. Here are some tips to manage the freezing events that will be coming our way.

Keep off the grass. If it is below freezing in the yard, stay out of your garden until things thaw out. This is especially true with lawns. Just remember to keep off the grass whenever it looks frosty, or you will be leaving dead footprints everywhere you step.

Protect container plantings. While a Japanese barberry may be hardy to -40 degrees in the ground, it can freeze deader than a door nail in a container where the whole soil mass can freeze and kill the roots. I think that for the most part containers are fine down to the low 20s, especially if during the day the mercury returns to above freezing. If you want to err on the safe side, consider wrapping your containers with burlap or blankets and/or move the pots closer to the house or a protected area. Just remember to remove everything once it warms up again. Never use plastic over the top of plants, as it can heat up if the sun comes out and it will cook them.

In our mild climate, vegetable gardens will continue to produce as long as we keep the hard frosts away. I have a marvelous late season crop of broccoli, lettuce and spinach that is looking good that I don’t want to lose, so I have already set in place some row cover that I can pull up and over them when I know it is going to freeze. Sometimes as little as a 5 degree increase can make all the difference in the world.

Hold off on hard pruning. Severe pruning should be left until after the hard freezes are over, which for us is usually in February. Selective or what I like to call light pruning can be done at almost any time of the year, as long as it is above freezing.

Keep watering. Yes, plants can sometimes need extra water in our winters, especially beds and containers that are under the eaves and don’t receive any rainfall. If we go a week or two without rain, then consider splashing some water around the yard to moisten the foliage of evergreens such as rhodies and conifers.

Mulching helps. Organic materials such as bark, compost, wood chips or even fresh leaves, when spread over the bare ground an inch or two thick, work wonders to protect against freezes — not to mention the soil building benefits and weed suppression they provide. Just remember not to bank them up high against trunks and crowns of plants. Your goal is to protect the roots, not the stems.

Fortunately, since I moved to the Northwest more than 30 years ago, our winters have become increasingly milder — the USDA has actually changed our zone from 7b to 8b — and even when we do have an arctic blast, it rarely lasts more than seven to 10 days.

Consider taking some of the above steps and your garden will be that much happier come spring. Stay safe and keep on gardening!

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at

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You can now make a reservation to try your hand at wreath-making Nov. 21 through Dec. 21 at Sunnyside Nursery, 3915 Sunnyside Blvd., Marysville. For more information or to sign up, visit

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