Gardening: Protect your plants from the spring elements

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

At this time of year, one of the first things I do in the morning and the last at night is check the weather forecast. The past several years, spring weather has become erratic and late season frosts are not unusual.

At the same time, folks like to push the envelope when it comes to buying and planting.

A late-spring frost shouldn't be a shock in Michigan.

If a frost threatens, tender plants should be brought indoors or housed in a garage or shed. But water is key to helping plants, be they trees, shrubs, perennials, tropicals or annuals, survive or mitigate frost damage, so if a frost is threatening water them well the day before. 

Covering plants that cannot be moved is helpful, but plastic is not recommend. Bed sheets work, but there are other choices that may be aesthetically more pleasing and less likely to damage the plants because of  excessive weight.  Burlap allows moisture and air to penetrate and can formed into temporary tents with a staple gun and thin strips of wood. Floating row covers, also called frost blankets, made of spun polyester, aren't very heavy, allowing light and moisture to penetrate without adding a great deal of weight that might break down tender plants should it snow or rain. Because the sun penetrates the material, floating row covers can be kept in place for several days if the threat of frost persists.

Cold temperatures are not the only element that can damage new plantings.  Tender plants and those purchased out of a greenhouse can also be damaged by heavy winds if not hardened off before planting outdoors. 

Hardening off is easily done by placing plants on shady porches or under shade trees for a several days before planting. The idea is to toughen them up by exposing tender leaves to air movement and light, so they are not susceptible to sun or leaf burn. Give full sun plants a couple of hours of sun a day and extend the time for a couple of hours daily.  

 I have several cloche-like coverings made of screening material originally used as bug protector at picnics I purchased at a garage sale that make perfect wind protectors for individual plants. 

The frost blankets used to protect plants from cold are also great for protecting large plants, containers and newly planted beds against wind damage any time of the year. I also use it to cover newly planted grass seed. It holds in the moisture and allows sun and rain to penetrate so the seed germinates quickly. 

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at