‘Winterize your Arizona yard’

This article was interesting to write. I experienced quite a few winters in Arizona while going to Arizona State University, yep it does get cold in the East Valley.

Article published in the SanTan Sun News Dec. 21, 2013 issue

Not too late to winterize yards

Even though the East Valley has encountered its first freeze, it isn’t too late to winterize the yard.

Home owners can begin to protect their precious landscaping from the elements during the cool months, says Chandler Certified Arborist and Water Conservation Coordinator Cathy Rymer.

“Even if they are behind because of the holidays, they can still catch up,” she explains.

First on the list should be adjusting the water schedule. Rymer says automatic water systems are forgotten about rather easily. Most plants grow during the summer, so they do not need as much water this time of the year. Bermuda grass lies dormant over the winter, so it only needs to be watered monthly. Winter lawns, on the other hand, should be watered once a week or less.

“Grass can get by with much, much less,” she says.

The rule of thumb, so to speak, is cycle and soak. Individuals should water for short periods of time, approximately 4 minutes, and let the water soak for 30 minutes to an hour before repeating.

“Many times when people irrigate their yards, they do it in the morning when they are sleeping or in the evening,” Rymer says. “They don’t notice the water running off the yard and into the street.”

Drip watering systems should also be checked during the winter months for leaks and clogs, or damaged sprinkler heads. With recent temperatures dipping into the low 30s, it is also important to use precautionary measures to prevent damage to plants.

“Some plants are affected by these temperatures, like yellow bells, orange bells and bougainvillea, as well as tender annual flowers such as marigolds and vegetables like tomatoes and peppers,” she says. “Covering with frost cloth, sheets or light blankets is the best way to prevent frost damage. Even though the leaves and tender outer shoots may be affected, covering should keep main stems safe, so they can produce new shoots next spring.”

Jo Cook, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Office program coordinator for urban horticulture, says individuals need to cover their plants with sheets or frost cloths, not plastic, while the sun is still out.

“Use the trapped warm temperatures from the soil and cover the plants, so it retains that heat,” Cook says. “It can make a 6- to 10-degree difference to the immediate environment of the plant.”

Plants should be covered all the way to the ground with sheets or frost cloths that are held down with rocks or landscaping staples. Because the cold snaps catch many by surprise, many of the nurseries and home improvement centers have already sold out of the frost clothes, Rymer says.

She says folks who have columnar cactus, such as cereus, Mexican fence post and organ pipe, can use Styrofoam cups to cover the tips of the stems to help prevent frost and freeze damage.

With the possibility of damage taking place, Rymer recommends that individuals do not prune their trees and bushes until after January because that is typically the coldest month.

“Even if parts of plants get frost, it helps insulate the rest of the plant,” she explains.

The general rule is not to remove more than 25% of the living parts—stems, leaves and branches—in any given year, when pruning. Rymer says if they have been frost damaged than those parts are dead and can be removed.

“It is better to leave them on until mid to late February,” Rymer says of the dead branches. “It prevents even more damage.”

If someone pruned after the first frost, it leaves what remains even more vulnerable to another frost. Ideally, individuals should mulch their yard with organic mulch or compost in the fall to insulate their soil.

“If they haven’t done it, it’s not too late,” she says.

Mulch, which will keep weeds down, should be distributed in 3-inch layers, which should be good until the following year. Do not pile the mulch against trunks of shrubs or trees.

Rymer says the stem or trunk, where the trunk tissue meets the soil, needs to remain exposed to air, so it does not suffocate.

“Do not fertilize during winter,” she explains. “It promotes new growth, which is vulnerable to frost. Wait until March to fertilize.”

For more information on how to winterize yards, visit http://cals.arizona.edu/maricopa/garden/ html/general/hort.htm.