Frozen soil can be beneficial to gardeners, experts say

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 17, 2010

This week, I’ll be sharing some information I received from two of our agricultural specialists at Mississippi State — vegetable expert Dr. David Nagle and ornamental horticulture specialist Dr. Lelia Kelly.

Nagel says the frozen soil we’ve had for the last couple of weeks can actually help gardeners. The ice crystals expand and break apart clods, leaving the soil mellow and easy to work. Water in microscopic channels called pores freezes and makes the pores bigger. This allows water to move quickly through the soil. The cold temperatures slow down and sometimes kill disease organisms, too.

John C. Coccaro is county Extension director. Write to him at 1100-C Grove St., Vicksburg, MS 39180 or call 601-636-5442. E-mail him at

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Frozen plants, on the other hand, are seldom a good thing.

The same expansion of ice crystals that does so much good in the soil ruptures plant cells and kills them. Examine your woody ornamentals for split bark and make note of those that have new bulges or cracks in them. The damage caused by the freeze might not cause any problems until this summer or even next summer. The ice formed damages the xylem and phloem underneath the bark and prevents the free flow of water and nutrients through the plant. The amount of damage might be small and not show up until the plant is stressed by high temperatures. Recording the damage now will help explain the symptoms later.

Six weeks from the end of January is the middle of March. Mid-March is prime gardening time, and many Mississippi gardeners will be planting the majority of their vegetables sometime from mid-March to April. Six weeks is the time it takes for newly planted tomato or pepper seeds to grow to transplant size for the home garden. This gives just a couple of weeks to find varieties to grow and get them started. Don’t hesitate to try something new, but always plant a few of the new variety near your old favorite and compare the two.

Kelly recommends tip-pruning narrow-leaf evergreens such as junipers, arborvitae, pine, cedar and false cypress now. Do not prune any branch beyond the foliage area, as new growth might not occur due to the lack of latent buds on the remaining branch stub. You can prune broadleaf evergreens such as Burford’s holly, photinia, viburnum, ligustrum and cleyera anytime prior to bud break in the spring. You should not prune broadleaf evergreens that offer early spring bloom, such as azaleas, until after flowering in late spring. Deciduous spring flowering shrubs including forsythia, kerria, weigelia and spirea should not be pruned until after flowering — unless you don’t want a lot of spring flowers! 

Still working on your New Year’s resolutions list? Don’t forget to include one of the most important — spend more time in the garden.

The health benefits really go without saying. Garden activities such as pruning, digging, raking, hoeing can help you stay fit. To make the activity easier and less tiresome, make sure you have all the right tools. Working in the garden will also help you shed any unwanted pounds that were accumulated during the holiday feasting.