Beginning gardeners who love the appeal of warmer-climate plants may wonder how to protect tropical plants in the winter. A seasoned gardener will inevitably answer, "Plant them in containers and bring them indoors in winter." Tropical plants are native to the tropics. They have evolved to fully appreciate very warm temperatures, a lot of sunshine and a lot of rain. They do not take cold very well and they are not acclimated to colder temperatures. Placing them on a sun porch, in a greenhouse, or in a reasonably warm barn or the garage is a good solution for wintering the plants.
How to Protect Tropical Plants in the Winter
Even in a climate as warm as Florida, the nights may get cold enough to damage tropical plants. That should not deter gardeners from planting these beautiful specimens, however. Although occasionally a tropical plant might be lost to excessive frost damage, most gardeners feel the beauty is worth the extra effort.
There are how to protect tropical plants in the winter steps you can take. These include:
- Heavy mulch - At least to two inches.
- Protective barriers - Keep the snow, wind and ice off your plants with protective barriers. These may include coverings, keeping the plant in a pergola or gazebo, and wind breaks, such as fences or rows of shrubbery.
- Acclimate plants to colder weather gradually.
- Select a site that receives plenty of sunlight, and will absorb the most heat. Brick walls, stone fences and paved areas absorb some of the sun's heat.
- Create a microclimate that is favorable for the plants. Your microclimate will bring warmth to the area you've chosen, and help to hold it there.
- Proper plant nutrition - If your plant receives optimal nutrients, it will tolerate cold temperatures better and recover faster than malnourished plants. Fertilize approximately four times per year. Do not fertilize just prior to winter so as to discourage new plant growth in the coldest season. Do not fertilize if the plants have been frost damaged.
- Tree canopies, arbors, trellises or outdoor buildings can protect the plants by raising night temperatures and reducing radiant heat loss.
- Watering before a freeze may help protect plants. The moist soil will absorb more solar radiation and re-radiate the heat through the night.
- Push container plants together in a group to reduce heat loss.
- Covers not only keep wet snow and frost off plants, but they help reduce radiant heat loss. (A light, dry snow covering can actually help protect some plants by acting as a covering to hold in heat.) Sometimes people put a light bulb under the covering to protect ornamental plants that cannot be moved.
- Sprinkling plants with water is a method sometimes used for ornamental plants. This will keep temperatures to 32 degrees F. However, this is risky since sprinkling must begin when freezing temperatures are reached and continue until thawing occurs. The water has to be evenly distributed to keep a film of liquid water on the surface.
In the Event of Frost Damage
If your plant has been damaged by frost or cold, the best remedy is not to prune it, even though you may have a strong urge to do so. Wait until the last frost and new growth appears; then you will know how much damage has occurred. You do not want to remove live wood or living tissue. Leaves that are damaged will fall off.
To determine if branches were damaged inside, look under the bark for black or brown discolorations. This is indicative of damage and may be pruned away. Do water your plants after a severe freeze. They need the nutrition to recover from the stress and press forward toward recovery and new growth. Read more about cold weather stunned plants and cold weather shocked plants. Finally, if your tropical plant is too far gone to recover, chalk it up to experience and go buy a new one - no plant lives forever.