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Surviving the Deep Freeze

The bitter cold here in the East has wreaked havoc on the garden this week. I’m not so much worried the many perennial plants, trees and shrubs we have on the property that are fully hardy down to USDA zone 5 and below.

by Jessica WalliserJanuary 9, 2014

To survive the sub-zero temperatures that struck her farm this winter, Jessica Walliser added a heat lamp to her chicken coop and took measures to protect her plants and feed the wild birds. Photo by Jessica Walliser (
Photo by Jessica Walliser

The bitter cold here in the East has wreaked havoc on the garden this week. I’m not so much worried the many perennial plants, trees and shrubs we have on the property that are fully hardy down to USDA zone 5 and below. Nor am I worried about any of my regionally native selections. I know these plants are tough as nails, they were born and bred here for tens of thousands of years; they can handle whatever nature tosses at them, even if that includes a wind chill cold enough to freeze the suet cakes I put in the feeder before I even make it back into the house. I do, however, need to provide some protection for the other living creatures on our homestead.

Protecting the Plants
In anticipation of the cold snap, I sawed the limbs off our discarded Christmas tree and laid them over a few of the marginally hardy perennials I have in the garden, including Powis Castle artemisia, Gaura Whirling Butterflies and ARP rosemary. I’m not sure what good it will do when the temperatures hit minus 30 degrees F with the wind chill, but at least I gave them an insulating blanket without running the risk of suffocating them.

I also created a fence of burlap around my crepe myrtle bush and some of my hydrangea. Both are prone to bud freeze even during a typical winter here in western Pennsylvania, so I’m not holding out much hope for them at this point. Still, I want to do everything I can to protect them. The burlap fence is meant to shield them from scorching winter winds and add a layer of protection from blowing snow.

Keeping the Chickens Warm
The other living creatures I’ve been working hard to protect from the cold snap are our hens. We have eight ladies now, and even though their hen house affords them a good amount of shelter, I want to do everything I can to keep frostbit combs at bay. For the first time in the 12 years I’ve been keeping chickens, I put a heat lamp in the coop. I had it for the peeps we raised this spring and dutifully hung it from the coop rafters earlier this week. While the heat lamp doesn’t heat the entire coop, it does create a nice, cozy spot up on the roost bar. There may be a battle for the warm spot every night, but it’s far better than no heat at all!

I’ve also been taking the chickens hot oatmeal every morning and every afternoon, in addition to tossing them plenty of protein-rich treats, such as dried mealworms and the stinkbugs we collect from our inside window sills every day.

Feeding Wild Birds
Feeding the wild birds has also been a priority here, as I know they need as much energy as they can get just to keep from freezing. Black oil sunflower seeds, niger thistle, suet cakes and cracked corn are on the daily menu, along with all the seeds and bugs they can naturally find on all the perennials I left standing for the winter. The three 15-foot-tall Leyland cypress we have on the side of the house provide the perfect nighttime shelter for our wild birds. These beautiful evergreens not only give us privacy from the neighbors, they also serve as valuable winter habitat for our feathered friends.

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