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Snow: It’s not just for WordPress blogs anymore! (Or: A winter primer for Californians)

December 9, 2009

Okay, so temps just below freezing aren’t exactly considered a “deep freeze” anywhere else in the country. But around here, where we just planted all our winter seedlings and the citrus harvest is about to start, the frozen soil was  a bit of a shocker, and the snow-covered hills caught just about everyone by surprise.

Once I dug all my warm wool clothes out of storage, I remembered that once upon a time I used to know all about winter. However, my New England know-how never covered topics like what to do if the oranges on your tree are frozen solid or your December lettuce starts are wilting, so I had to hit the interweb to figure out what on earth you’re supposed to do when California freezes over.

How can I keep my garden from being damaged by the frost?

  • Water your plants, especially veggie starts, before the frost. If there’s a frost in the forecast, water your plants well and make sure the soil is moist. Spray the leaves with water, too. Don’t water them after the frost, though—just let them “defrost” on their own.
  • Protect plants physically. In places where temperatures are regularly below freezing, people build frames and other devices to warm plants up. But around here, a simple covering is more than sufficient, since the freeze isn’t likely to last too long (I hope!) Blankets, newspaper, cardboard boxes, and milk cartons all work well. Try not to have the covering in direct contact with the plants—it should be more like a little tent of warm(er) air around the plant.
  • Help your trees out too. Small trees can be covered just like other plants. Larger trees can be warmed up with things as simple as Christmas tree lights (but not the schmancy new LED ones!) Trees should be kept moist just like plants (though it’s not really an issue given all the rain that came with this storm!)

How do I know if my plants were damaged by the frost?

  • First and foremost, wait it out till warmer weather returns. Then you’ll be able to assess the signs. On citrus, damaged fruit will get swollen and puffy and the rind will separate. Damaged leaves may get brown spots. Don’t start pruning off any damaged wood till the spring, though—the tree may surprise you!
  • On vegetables, frost damage isn’t subtle. The plants will wilt, look like they’re water logged, and then turn brown and die. There’s not too much you can do once the damage is done, though, so again—just wait and see. Generally, the hearty winter vegetables should hold their own in this (relatively!) mild cold, but if you have lots of lettuce starts in like we do, you may lose some of them.

Other wintry weather tips

Black ice = bad. And there’s been some in various parts of the Bay this week. First, know that you can’t always see black ice on the road. If you hit it, you’ll feel it. Don’t brake quickly. Definitely don’t accelerate! Just ease onto the brake slowly and try to use the steering wheel to control the car, rather than the brakes or the gas. If you start to skid, don’t panic—just turn the wheel into the skid to regain control of the car. And leave lots of space between the car in front of you, just in case you do hit a patch of ice.

Heat = good. This is the part where the East Coasters’ and Midwesterners’ eyes start to bug out, but there are still a decent number of houses in the Bay Area that don’t have heat, since it’s not needed most of the year. But it’s obviously a good idea to have some heat flowing right now, especially in areas where, say, pets are sleeping that may not be heated normally. Also, frozen pipes are not fun. I don’t think it will get cold enough for long enough in Oakland for this to be an issue, but Contra Costa County’s already under a frozen pipe alert. You can insulate outdoor pipes somewhat by wrapping them in rags or newspaper or the pipe insulation stuff they (hopefully?) sell at local hardware stores. On the off chance they do freeze, you can run water to try to get them moving again (assuming you’ve got at least a trickle coming through—but around here you probably do!), or use an iron or hair dryer on low to warm them up a bit.

Warm winter food = the best. Hot chocolate! Steel cut oats! Cream of wheat! Root vegetable pot pie! These are a few of my favorite things…and I eat them far too infrequently in sunny California. Perfect winter snow food—yay!

    Anyway. While we Californians have fun with our measly little snow piles, our storm is apparently headed east with a fury (or maybe a flurry?) As it gets past the Rockies, it should drop some real snow. Have fun!

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    4 comments

    1. Our birdbath froze solid last night.

      Good info. Some of it sounds vaguely familiar from growing up in Michigan, but I can’t say as I miss it much. Snow and cold belongs in the mountains where you can visit it 🙂


    2. I’m moving back to Oakland in a little more than a week (to reunite with my wife in Adams Point) but I wish I had been there this week for the snow event! Not that I miss the snow (I’m currently on the border of Iowa and Illinois where it was zero degrees when I woke up this morning, with windchill in the minus teens — took a while to brush the snow off the car, too) but I wish I could have seen it in the Bay Area. Ah well.

      I’m enjoying your blog!

      Mark


    3. Mark, don’t worry, you didn’t miss too much—nothing on the snow front in Adams Point, just way up in the hills. (We did get a ground freeze, though, which is a first since I’ve lived here!) Midwesterners are probably laughing at all the “deep freeze!” and “bitter cold!” news headlines, though!

      And Gene, I still remember the very first winter I lived here when I was missing the Boston snow….a friend noted that the Bay Area had it even better, since we could drive to winter, play in it, and then come back home to spring. 😉 (The whole chains-and-mountains deal was another adventure altogether, though! Our “mountains” out east are pretty flat, so I wouldn’t know a snow chain if it hit me in the face.)


    4. Out here in the cold northeast (where it has only snowed once this season!) our farmers and gardeners use winter hoops: just bend pvc piping from a hardware store into half-moons, stick them into the soil every few feet, cover with reemay, and use sandbags to hold the reemay down. If your winter stays colder than usual, it’s a really easy and cheap solution that keeps plants from freezing. Now if only we had a garden of our own 😦 In the meantime, I’ll read enviously about your citrus trees!



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