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10-year logoBy Stephanie Rose

‘As much as I love cold weather,’ wrote Stephanie Rose in opening her Natural Companions column in April 2007, ‘I have to concede that we experienced way too much of a good thing this past winter.  Long periods of extremely cold weather are the norm in many other parts of the country, and plants survive.  Here, however, our local plants may be accustomed to surviving the isolated sub-freezing night, but sustained, frosty temperatures lasting nearly a week are something they weren’t meant to handle.’

‘As a homeowner, I’m always aware of what freezes can do to my garden, but I recognize that it’s primarily a visual blow and that whatever falls prey to the weather can be replanted.  As a landscape designer, however, the scope of my concern is larger as I consider my clients’ losses and reflect on a key lesson to be learned:  As professionals, we must be keenly aware of the climate and how it might be reflected in our clients’ yards.’  She continued:


‘The lesson is about more than the climate at large:  In this recent cold snap, I couldn’t help observing how topography and the presence of architecture played into the ability of plants to survive the cold.  .  .  .  One morning, for example, I was pleased to note that a plant directly adjacent to the house appeared perfectly normal – and disappointed to see, just five feet away, the same variety of plant completely devastated by the freeze.  Armed with this observation, I took inventory throughout my garden, front and back, and observed variations on this same phenomenon in different locations throughout.’


‘This immediately carried me back to college science classes and discussions of microclimates.  I’m no expert on the subject, but I clearly recall that any structure that gives off heat – particularly heated spaces such as homes but also walls and other sources of radiant heat – can warm an area up to a foot or two away enough to protect tender plants from freezing temperatures.’   


‘But this tour of my yard didn’t resolve the mystery of why my fruit trees had made it when so many had not.  .  .  .  Why had my Satsuma tangerines and other citrus survived the bitter cold while growers throughout the region incurred heavy losses?  In this case, my home is situated on an upslope, and much of the reported damage to citrus crops apparently occurred in low-lying areas.  The difference:  Cold air pools in low-lying areas such as valley floors.  Up on a slope at any sort of elevation above that floor, such pooling doesn’t readily occur.  In addition, the air kept moving, and stillness apparently enhances the damage subfreezing temperatures can do.’  


‘The implications here are wide-ranging.  Placing the same plant throughout a client’s garden, for example, may make for a cohesive design, but I will never be able to guarantee it will perform equally well in all locations.’


‘What I’ve presented here is, of course, a very personal response to the vagaries of our recent winter here, so forgive me if what I’ve described is something your local climates and microclimates force you to consider on an ongoing basis.’  


‘Many (if not most) of us offer guarantees on plants for specified time periods, qualified by clients’ provision of appropriate maintenance and care and their early communication when something happens (such as a sprinkler problem) – all dedicated to assuring the best possible outcome for their projects.’  


‘Just the same,’ Stephanie concluded, ‘clients need to understand that plant demise is normal in lots of situations.  .  .  .  As I see it, there’s no harm in preparing clients ahead of time and letting them know that differences in temperatures, soil conditions and watering will all influence the success of their plantings.  This positions them to be both watchful and supportive and gives them distinct roles in assuring long-term success.’

‘This won’t help when winter wreaks havoc, but at the very least it will knock the edge off your first conversation once the damage is assessed.’

How do you work with client expectations when it comes to the effects weather can have on plants?  Is Stephanie’s approach as sound in Maine as it is in southern California?  Please share your experiences by commenting in the space below!


Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine.  She may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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