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THE BIG CHILL; GARDENERS SHUDDER AT FROST'S DAMAGE.

Byline: Carol Bidwell Daily News Staff Writer

Your ficus has fizzled? Your begonias are begone? Your hibiscus has high-tailed it?

You're not alone. In the wake of the unseasonably cold and windy nights a few weeks ago, when temperatures plummeted into the 20s for several hours, many Valley gardeners are bemoaning the loss of their favorite herbs, vegetables, flowering plants and even small trees.

It hasn't been this bad since the winter of 1989-90, say gardeners, when similarly cold conditions seemingly scorched every unprotected green thing throughout the state. A brief spell of low temperatures is normal, even in sunny California, but meteorologists are blaming this year's wacky weather on La Nina, the drier and colder cousin of last year's El Nino.

Whatever the explanation, gardeners are unhappy.

``It was horrible,'' said Harriet Schwartz of North Hollywood, a dedicated gardener. ``I was just sick when I went out in my garden. The frost took the vinca, the impatiens. They were frozen to the roots.''

Roberto Barrigan of Reseda lives in a condo, but lost all his potted plants.

``Anything tropical, the frost got it,'' he said. ``Just totally burned.''

Perhaps the saddest sight in the Valley is the Sepulveda Garden Center, a 400-plus-plot community garden on Magnolia Boulevard in Encino, where those who pay $20 rent a year grow fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers. Before the frost, almost everything was green and flourishing. Now, nearly every 10-by-20-foot plot contains at least some burned, dried-out plants - and every plant in some plots was wiped out by the cold and the wind.

The only plants that survived were cold-crop veggies like broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, and plots where gardeners covered plants before the frost could kill them.

``Since that first frost a few days before Christmas, all the summer vegetables - tomatoes, eggplant, corn, the stuff you can kinda carry into winter if the weather's good - are gone,'' said Patricia Jones, senior gardener for the Department of Recreation and Parks, which runs the garden.

Signs of frostbitten or frozen plants are unmistakable. While frozen, they may be covered with a thin sprinkling of heavy frozen dew: ice. When the temperature rises, the frozen leaves thaw. First they turn limp, then brown, then dry out, easily crumbling between your fingers.

But don't despair, professional gardeners say, even if your crocus has conked out and your snapdragons succumbed. Plants that look dead may still have healthy stems and roots.

``Don't press the panic button,'' counsels Ellen Vukovich, landscaper/partner at Chatsworth Nursery Center. ``People go out and look in their yards and see stuff that's crispy brown and think it's all dead. But they should leave it alone, no matter how ugly it is. It could come back February or March. I tell them to just be patient.''

That's the same advice Ismael Alvarez, nurseryman at Franks Nursery & Florist in Northridge, gives customers. But they don't always follow his advice.

``Especially if it's in their front yards, they don't want to look at the ugly brown stuff, so they cut it back or pull it up,'' he said. ``Always, I say, `Don't touch it till we know the cold weather's over.' ''

Schwartz said she had no doubt her flowers were dead, dead, dead. And she just couldn't stand to look at their brown remains. So last weekend, against the experts' advice, she planted healthy stock (plants in the crucifer family) and pansies.

``I keep saying, `This (cold snap) only usually happens once a year, and after it freezes, it'll be fine.' I don't know if these young plants will grow or not, but I'll give it a try,'' she said. ``If they freeze, I'll pull 'em out and start over again.''

Schwartz and other gardeners who replace frostbitten plants or who trim off frost-burned sections risk having tender, new growth blasted by another winter freeze, the garden experts say.

``People come in to buy flowers now, and I say, `You shouldn't buy that right now. It's too cold. Come back in a month or two.' I hate to lose a sale, but I'd rather make a friend,'' said Alvarez. ``They won't be happy if they buy flowers and plant them, and they freeze.''

So how do you protect what remains of your garden from death by frost?

Keep these words in mind: Shelter, placement, fertilizer, water.

At Sieu Hoang's Exotic Garden Nursery in Reseda, the plants in his plastic-encased greenhouse, where the temperature hovered in the low 40s, almost all survived, while those outdoors with no cover froze.

With losses that may reach $20,000, he can sympathize with home gardeners whose favorite greenery is now brown and burned-looking.

But you don't have to have a greenhouse to protect your garden, Hoang said. Home gardeners can shelter their plants by spreading sheets of plastic - even plastic garbage bags - over exposed greenery, particularly tropical and semi-tropical plants like bougainvillea, bird of paradise, hibiscus and banana trees. In areas where frost is not usually severe, mesh shadecloth, available at most nurseries, also can provide a winter blanket for greenery.

In a pinch, even an old bedsheet, a blanket or a shower curtain can cover tender plants for the night, as long as they don't rest on the plants and squash them.

But the best protection, Hoang says, is to put your plants in a spot where they'll get shelter when frost threatens. Plants in pots can be moved under eaves, patio covers, large trees or hardier shrubs.

``I lost a lot of plants at my nursery, but at home in Van Nuys, I grow mangos and litchis, and they were just fine because I put them in next to the house. During the day, the heat from the sun radiates off the house, and at night, there's still warmth coming from the house to keep them warm. Even though it froze, those trees had no damage.''

Vukovich also advocates shelter, along with a good watering that keeps the wind and cold te`mperatures from pulling all the moisture out of plants, killing them. A plant's leaves may singe, but the roots will stay healthy, ready to push out new shoots in spring.

``If I hear there's a frost warning, I tell people to water,'' she said. ``The water acts as an insulation for the plant.

``The other thing I tell people is to make sure they have healthy plants, to fertilize them and make sure they're strong going into cold weather. Healthy plants will withstand more cold than plants that aren't so healthy.''

If your plants do freeze, Alvarez says, wash them off first thing in the morning with the garden hose before they have a chance to thaw in the sun. Sometimes, that'll counter the burn caused by the slow thaw.

But, professional gardeners say, it's easier to protect your plants than trying to revive them. So Valley residents should keep an ear out for frost warnings so they can act before damage is done.

Mark Gilles, who also tends a Sepulveda Garden Center plot, said the first night of frost surprised him. The next morning, he rushed to his garden and began covering plants with plastic buckets.

``But it was too late for a lot of them,'' Gilles said. ``The frost had gotten them the night before. But it could have been worse. My broccoli is OK, and most of my onions. I'm just glad I'm not a citrus farmer in the San Joaquin Valley.''

At least four Central California counties have been declared federal disaster areas after citrus growers and other farmers lost nearly 100 percent of their crops. As a result, prices for citrus and other California-grown vegetables are expected to triple, a good reason for home gardeners to try to salvage whatever fuits and vegetables they can.

So, has the Valley seen its last frost this winter? Or do gardeners still need to stand ready with a warm blanket for the broccoli?

It depends on who you ask. The National Weather Service will say only to expect ``unseasonal weather'' in January that may see lows dip a degree or two lower tha`n the 48-degree normal nighttime temperature at the Los Angeles Civic Center. The Old Farmer's Almanac, which generally gives March 17 as the last possible date for frost in Southern California, predicts below-normal temperatures in February and March.

Hoang believes the worst of the cold is over this winter.

``It gets cold before Christmas,'' he said. ``It gets cold later, but it never seems to get as cold again during the winter.''

Vukovich said she expects another freeze, possibly later than most gardeners expect.

``It can get really cold in February, and I don't think we've seen the end of this (cold) yet,'' she said.

Better safe than sorry, experts say

It's not hard to protect your plants when frost threatens, say professional gardeners, who offer these tips:

Be aware of frost warnings so you're ready to go into ``save'' mode.

Make sure plants are healthy and well-watered before a frost hits.

Before you buy plants, ask your gardener whether they will withstand frost or whether they'll need protection.

Plant tropicals and others within 10 feet of your home to take advantage of radiant heat on cold nights. Shelter smaller plants under trees or larger shrubs.

When frost threatens, move potted plants under patio covers, eaves or other shelter.

Use plastic, bedsheets, gardener's mesh or other materials to shelter plants out in the open.

If plants suffer frostbite, resist the impulse to cut them back or yank them out. With warm weather in February and March, plants whose roots were not damaged by the cold will begin to put out new leaves. Then the burned areas can be cut away and the plant fertilized so it will begin a new growth cycle.

- Carol Bidwell

CAPTION(S):

3 photos, box

PHOTO (1) Sieu Hoang lost up to $20,000 in plants and trees at his Exotic Garden Nursery in Reseda when the Christmas week freeze hit.

Myung J. Chun/Daily News

(2) Even though leaves and garden plants are withered, they might come back in the spring.

Myung J. Chun/Daily News

(3 -- color -- cover) Surviving the Ice Age

Gus Ruelas/Daily News

Box: Better safe than sorry, experts say (see text)
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 2, 1999
Words:1712
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