Felder Rushing: The garden is all ready for the the winter


Far as I know, there isn’t a formal word for what happens when frozen summer plants melt into a greenish glob. But botanically and practically, it’s nasty.

I studied plant physiology in college, promise to not get too eye-crossing technical here. But, apologies to Professor Price, in general plants are organisms made of living, multiplying cells with fairly rigid walls filled with gooey protoplasm made of tiny functional bits suspended in water. Water between the cells holds various soluble nutrients, proteins, enzymes, salts, and other stuff which normally moves in and out of cells to keep things running smoothly. In cold-climate plants, some of the substances act like antifreeze to keep them from drying out or bursting their cells.

While most of our familiar trees, shrubs, and perennial plants can grow easily all year by shifting those ingredients as needed to deal with heat, drought, and cold, many others can’t. Quite a few northern plants that can take well below zero degrees can’t handle and burn out in our nonstop day and night high summer temperatures; desert plants can get overwhelmed by too much rainfall or watering; and tropical plants, including many popular vegetables and summer flowers, die in cold weather.

In my garden, it’s the latter that got wiped out, nastily, during last week’s sudden freeze. Though the tender-looking new foliage of my daffodil foliage, painted arum, Hellebores, violas, and kale, which have more of the antifreeze bits in and between their cells, held up perfectly well, my peppers, basil, elephant ears, cannas, castor bean, and zinnias got wiped out. 

One day they were fine, the next they were either wilted and brown, or worse, completely flaccid and splayed flat in a dark green mush over the mulch or hanging listlessly over the edges of pots. Within a couple of days, some began wafting a faintly fetid aroma.

And like I said, there isn’t a unique term to describe it completely. “They froze” doesn’t address the dripping slimy cell goo. However, my college roommate, linguistic scholar Clayton Allen, said I could just make up a term for freezing and thawing plants. He suggested “booglify” which I’ve used ever since.

I do understand the horror. When cells of tender plants are exposed to freezing temperatures, the relatively pure water between cells turns to ice so it can’t move in and out of cells, so the plants lose their “structural integrity” and parts of them wilt. But really cold temps freeze the water inside the cells, which expands and ruptures the rigid cell walls, so when thawing occurs the cell goo leaks out, and plants simply melt.

With me so far? It’s been compared to how that baby Alien burst out of the astronaut in the movie.

Because the freeze was so deep and sudden, and I wanted to eke out a few more weeks of some semi-tender succulents and heirloom mums that I wanted to photograph, I covered some with pots, others with plastic, though I uncovered it all the next morning to prevent steaming damage.

I also watered everything really well ahead of time to keep top parts of plants from drying out in the sun and wind, which is what often kills new shrubs and late-laid grass sod in the winter. Also, water turning to ice gives off heat which can protect tender plant parts for awhile when temps remain in the upper 20s; this is why fruit growers mist plants continually during frosty weather.

My garden is now filled with cold-hardy winter stuff. I just gotta clean up the booglified stuff before it starts stinking more.


They are the perfect definition of a work in progress.

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