Spring freeze inspires visions of kerosene heaters

What type of person places kerosene heaters along their suburban garden paths to prevent hydrangea buds from freezing? Not me, not yet. The late Penny McHenry, founder of the American Hydrangea Society, was the kerosene heater type of person.

When she began the practice in her 70s, I knew, then, she was beyond the acceptable limits of normal. I've got decades before I'm 70, yet during these early days and cold nights of April, I've found myself wishing I had bought the kerosene heaters from Penny's estate sale. Obviously, the limits of acceptably normal are shifting.

February and March this year were lovely warm months, and that was exactly when late-freeze anxiety set in, anxiety that grew along with the new foliage of most shrubs. When April brings freezing nights after days and weeks of warm temperatures, your garden is sure to respond to the depressing poetry of the killing frosts. And the response won't be pleasant.

The first defensive measure against killing frosts is to make sure your plants have been well watered. If plants are dry and experience freezing temperatures, they are apt to quickly dehydrate and die. This April, we were lucky it rained before the temperatures dropped.

Next, plants can be covered with sheets to protect them from the cold. Sheets should be placed on plants before the sun sets for greater heat retention. If you use plastic to cover your plants, make sure it is removed before the sun is too high in the sky the next day so you won't create a greenhouse effect that will kill your plants.

Of the tactics listed, this April's sheeting of plants was, mostly, a failure. Winds and cold combined to freeze with decadent abandon. Covered plants displayed the same serendipitous death of blooms, buds and foliage as those left uncovered.

Suddenly, using kerosene heaters doesn't seem so crazy. After all, didn't Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of "The Yearling," place fires amongst her Florida citrus grove to protect her oranges from freezing temperatures?

Beyond losing hydrangea foliage and buds, the recent cold nights also froze foliage on crape myrtles, hollies and camellias, something I've not seen during 25 years of living in Georgia. Inexplicably, many azaleas - especially my favorite, George Tabor, which was in full bloom - received zero damage to their blooms or foliage.

How can this be? What laws of cellular structure would allow the thin membranes of a blossom to withstand freezing temperatures that annihilated seemingly tougher cells of leaves and buds on plants 2 inches away? Why didn't the tendrils, with new young foliage, of my dastardly traveling akebia vine freeze and die? I certainly wanted them to.

In three weeks, aside from losing some hydrangea blossoms, signs of the recent freeze won't be visible on most plants. So why all this bother, all this worry? It's the desire for beauty to be retained, the desire for no harm to be done and the desire to be more in control.

I wonder how much kerosene heaters cost?

Stone Mountain resident Tara Dillard designs, installs and writes about gardens. Her most recent books include "Garden Paths and Stepping Stones" and "Perennials for Georgia." E-mail her at TaraDillard@agardenview.biz or visit www.AGardenView.biz.