The Coastal Gardener - February, 2007
Frosty Mornings and Bareroot Roses
A frosty morning on my ridge is a very rare thing. With a deep canyon out the back and a long sloping meadow in front tilting towards the sea, cold air welling up form the canyon slips through the gap. Between house and pond it rushes by like a ghost without lingering in any but the most sheltered hollows of the garden. Even during the big freeze we had some weeks back, white hoar was a scarce sight among the roses and aloes and seemed to concentrate in a few beds shaded from the morning sun. Just near the pond edge, blue Carex grass was edged in white crystals, and the pond was thick with ice that shattered like panes of glass when the cataracts began to tumble down their rocky courses. The patio fared less well, it creates a trap for cold air, sheltered between the house wall and a long fence. Here the weak dawn light revealed begonias and euphorbia limp in frozen pots, the afternoon sun reducing them to blackened heaps. A total loss.
Well since then (they say we will have another before you even read this) I can't seem to go anywhere that I don't end up commiserating with fellow gardeners. Of course the first thing I say is "Don't do ANYTHING yet". Ok, I will repeat that. Don't do ANYTHING yet.
The worst mistake you can make with frost bitten angel trumpet, hibiscus, bougainvillea, and succulents are to cut them back in haste. The frost might return and make matters worse. First, this will create open wounds that will have not time to heal over before the next cold spell, as new frost sets in, the cut off stems will simply freeze back further. On fleshy plants, the damaged tissue is acting like an insulator protecting the living tissue lower down the stem.
Second, the stems might not be dead after all. Given a month or two they might sprout anew, having shed the cold clipped leaves. This is especially true of woody plants like bougainvillea and hibiscus. After new growth begins, simply remove the obviously dead parts and feed the plants a balanced diet to give them the strength to recover. For succulents, the frosted sections will begin to wither and dry up. These can then be broken off cleanly without cutting.
For perennials such as Mexican Sage, Tagetes, Agapanthus which sprout from the base, you can clip them back to within a few winches of the ground by the end of the month. New growth will quickly show and they will be fresh and lovely within a month or so.
Soon after a frost, the most common reaction is to pull out frost damaged plants and try to replace them with hardier shrubs. This is a mistake in many ways. These killing frosts happen so rarely that the years of enjoyment you get out of subtropical plants makes it well worth the occasional loss. There is such a wealth of incredible half-hardy plants to enjoy, a true luxury among gardens across the country, that is a pity to waste precious garden space on boring shrubs that you can grow almost anywhere.
A killing frost is more like an opportunity to reshape the garden. If something died, the resulting open space is ripe for new experimentation. The old red hibiscus could be replaced with a stunning new multicolor or ruffled petal type. Or a whole new shrub, like a Purple Princess Flower, Tibuchina, or a fragrant dwarf citrus that provides fruit, flowers and foliage.
Even with the extreme cold, local nurseries are gearing up for spring with a wealth of fine plants to choose from. This is the ideal time to shop for roses and fruit trees. A recent visit to Regan Nursery in Fremont (www.ReganNursery.com) resulted in a truck full of new and noteworthy roses. During a visit with the outstanding rose breeder, Tom Carruth; I was introduced to several fine new roses he has created. One, a dark climber called 'Night Owl', was particularly stunning. This is probably one of the only mauve/purple climbers available with its massive clusters of 2-inch blooms. In the same dark tone was the floribunda, 'Ebb Tide'. A clove-like fragrance, compact shape, and excellent disease resistance makes this rose a perfect companion to the yellow floribunda 'Julia Child'.
Floribunda roses with their short bushy shapes and multiple blooms per stem are ideal for garden color and blend well with other shrubs unlike the more awkward Hybrid Teas. Another new flirbunda by Tom was 'Topsy Turvey' with red orange petals backed with a white blush for a two-tone effect. The blooms were fragrant but the sheer number of flowers is what made me notice. Last and best is 'Royal Sunset', a hard to find climber dating back to 1960, that I grow as an open shrub. Very fragrant apricot blooms are loose and open but prolifically produced. Superb disease resistance only adds to the bountiful harvest of blooms all summer. Since it is so hard to find, I have planted several new specimens to replace my original shrub now fading with age.
Must have plant of the month: Zephranthes candida, Rain Lily. This evergreen bulb carpets the ground with dark grassy leaves that sudden support pink blushed white blooms, not unlike open crocuses, in August and September. If you have not seen it before, look carefully under the sign at the Highlands Inn in Carmel Highlands. A patch planted by some educated gardener catches my eye as it comes into bloom among Stipa grass, Spanish lavender, and Coleonema.