Sad, isn’t it, when those lustrous plants you’ve nurtured since spring succumb to the chill of the fall season? “Ah, but it’s to be expected,” you say. After all, you knew they were marginally hardy when you bought them in those little 4-inch containers. You didn’t really expect them to survive through October, now did you? But now those once-small babies fill a 2-gallon pot! Wouldn’t it be great if you could find a way to protect them through winter, so you could have them as fully grown specimens next spring?

Esperanza

My favorite plant, esperanza, should survive winter now that it’s been planted in my garden on the south side of our house.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Ceniza

Sure, we have to shuttle this beautiful ceniza inside and out during cold weather, but we’re determined to keep it alive.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Fern

This old fern has been in the family for years – because it has a winter home inside the house.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Well, fellow gardeners, there’s good news! You just might be able to save many of those marginally hardy plants you expected to lose this winter if you just take some measures to protect them and follow a few gardening tips.

What should you do first? Well, if you’ve got room in your garden, plant container plants in the ground and use ample mulch to protect the roots. Consider esperanza (Tecoma stans), my favorite plant. Every year I purchase a new one in a 1-gallon container, bump it up to a 3-gallon size and watch it grow and produce those clusters of large, funnel-shaped, yellow flowers. If I leave it outside in the container, its roots freeze, so I start all over again with a new plant the next year.

But this past spring, I bought an exceptional specimen – a cultivar called Gold Star. I refuse to give it up without a fight. Though it’s only supposed to be hardy to Zone 8 (I live in Zone 7), I think I can save it. Here’s how: I planted it in the ground while the weather was still warm to allow its roots to establish. Then I mulched it well. Why might this work? Like many plants, esperanza dies when its roots freeze. In northern Mexico, where it’s native, that’s generally not a problem. But in north Texas (where I live) it can get much colder. If the roots are planted inground, however, they’re more likely to survive any freeze we might get.

And of course, I wasn’t going to plant my precious marginally hardy favorite just anywhere. I had to find the best location where my “iffy” plant would be best-protected from winter’s elements. So my esperanza found a new home right next to the south-facing wall of my house, in a full-sun location, assuring the warmest microclimate in my landscape. I could’ve placed it on the west side with just about equal protection, but the south-facing wall is also the lee side around here (we get most of our winter winds from the north).

If you don’t have the space to add your plants in your garden, there’s another option to putting your marginally hardy selections in the ground: Let them go dormant, and then place them in a protected area, like your garage. As odd as this may seem, it appears to work for a lot of gardeners. Just don’t forget about ’em. When the plants begin to leaf out in spring, you’ll need to move them into a sunny location and let them grow.

Yet another plant care alternative is to bring your outdoor containers inside when temperatures dip. We did this last winter with a plant our friend gave us the previous summer. It was a really nice potted specimen of ceniza (Leucophyllum frutescens), a central Texas-native and gray-leaved shrub with purple flowers. We kept it healthy and vigorous by moving it into our screened porch when overnight temperatures dropped dramatically, and we lugged it into our den when it got really cold. It was lots of trouble, no doubt, but we though it was worth it. (And we’ll do it again.)

Planting your marginally hardy plants in larger pots is another trick you can try – the extra soil works as a buffer to winter’s cold. But this idea is only useful if you upsize the pot late enough in the season so the roots don’t have enough time to grow out into the expanded medium.

Another tip for any of your plants you want to tide over until next spring is to reduce fertilizer – especially nitrogen. New growth forced out by feeding gets “burned” by cold temps and wind, and soft tissue dies. I won’t fertilize my esperanza again until spring.

And finally, don’t forget to keep your plants well-hydrated at the onset of a cold spell. Chilly, drying winds sap the water right out of plants. A thorough wetting will protect them. Also consider wrapping the lower stems or trunks of sensitive plants, and cover them with a blanket. I kept a tender rose, ‘Marechal Niel’, alive for years by wrapping its trunk at night and unwrapping it the next morning.

If this all seems too much work for you, don’t give up. Consider loaning out your marginally hardy containerized plants for the winter. Sure, it’s hedging on our “survival” theme here, but it works, too. Folks with indoor patios might enjoy well-cared-for greenery over the winter – and what do you have to lose that you wouldn’t have lost for sure in the winter winds anyways?