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Gardening & More: Sudden shifts in weather can hurt plants

INSULATION — Since we have had relatively little snow to insulate our plants from fluctuations in temperature, this year, add mulch to protect roots. You can also use evergreen branches around and on top of plants, to provide insulation.
SPRINGVILLE — You may have enjoyed the 60-degree weather we got at the end of January, especially since it came on the heels of single-digit temperatures, the week before. Maybe you liked seeing our lake effect snow melt away.

But that is not the kind of weather our gardens prefer.

According to Niagara County Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator Jon Farfaglia, our gardens’ ideal weather is on the cool side.

“Winter is supposed to be cold,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be like the Carolinas, here.”

Temperatures should gradually decline from the beginning of winter and then, at the mid-point, gradually rise. Ideally, daily or weekly temperatures should be consistent, without extreme fluctuations.

“We’d rather have it be boring,” Farfaglia said.

The temperature fluctuations that we have been experiencing are a problem for our gardens, but Farfaglia said, “I’m probably more concerned that folks don’t have much snow cover.”

Snow is a good insulator that can protect plants against the damage that comes from wild fluctuations in temperature. This is the second year in a row that Western New York has seen below-average snow cover.

When warm spells are followed by a sudden, substantial drop in temperature, plants can be damaged.

Plants that are more sensitive and in jeopardy of damage include:

– Broad-leafed evergreens, such as rhododendrons, which are susceptible to drying out.

– Evergreen ground covers.

– Anything planted late in the fall, that did not have a chance to establish itself.

– Perennials or bulb flowers, such as tulips, that have pushed out of the ground and may have progressed farther than they should have.

Other plants that might be damaged include any that are suited for a warmer growing zone.

“Gardeners are optimistic,” Farfaglia said. “They may choose a plant that needs warmer conditions. If they place it in a protected area of their yard and have ideal weather conditions, it may survive. Unfortunately, this year, it may not.”

For example, rosemary plants should be brought inside, during the winter. Farfaglia said that he forgot about his rosemary plant, last year, but it was in a protected area, very close to the house. Luckily, the plant made it through the winter. This year, his rosemary is not in a protected area. It was fine in the middle of January but, by the end of the month, it wasn’t looking so good.

What can you do to protect your plants?

Try mulching. This is something you should have done in the fall, but Farfaglia said that it is not too late to do it, now.

You do not have to use bark chips or traditional mulch products. If you still have your Christmas tree, cut branches off and set them around and on top of plants. You can also cut a branch or two off a mature evergreen.

Farfaglia said that it will not hurt a tree to prune it, at this time of year. The branches will provide a little extra insulation for your plants.

This year is not as bad as last year, which had more fluctuations, more days of above-average temperatures and even less snow cover.

“It didn’t seem like we truly had winter last year,” Farfaglia said. Plus, we had 80-degree weather in March, which tricked plants into leafing out. That was followed by freezes that damaged plants and trees.

“If the weather is relatively normal from this point on, we should get through the winter with less problems than we had last year,” Farfaglia said. “Knock on wood.”

If these weather conditions form a pattern over the next few years, Western New York gardeners may need to consider selecting plants that are not as sensitive to freezes and thaws.

If you are concerned about how this wild weather may be affecting your plants, add some mulch or cover your plants with evergreen branches.

Connie Oswald Stofko is publisher of, the online gardening magazine for Western New York. Email

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