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Plant Care

Winter in the Garden

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There are various options for 'wrapping' your plants against winter cold. Frost-cloths, available from most plant nurseries, are ideal winter protection plants for tender shrubs or plants. Dead fern or bracken can also be used, remembering to provide pockets of air for the plant. No air circulation means you risk fungal growths in warmer, moist weather. With both frost cloth and bracken, use a covering of chicken wire firmly fixed into the ground to prevent the entire edifice taking off in the next decent wind. Don't overdo 'wrapping' your plants or you can tempt them into bud too soon, with disastrous result.

Plants in pots are especially vulnerable. The soil in the pot, and thus the plant roots, will be exposed to colder conditions than in the border. Grouping pots together helps, an isolated pot is clearly going to be colder than a group, and bringing them in closer to the house wall will also reduce the cold. Containers should be wrapped in very cold areas (bubble wrap is ideal), and moved into a protected position such as a cold frame or greenhouse.

Plants in a cold frame will need extra protection on extremely cold periods, and you can cover the frame with old carpet or under-felt or a double layer of bubble plastic. Don't forget to remove the covering when the thermometer rises again. Open it regularly to allow fresh air to circulate and keep the nasty moulds away!

Never plant when the soil is frozen or soaking wet. If new plants arrive or you can't resist something at our local plant nursery, keep the new acquisition in the greenhouse until the soil is warmer and dried out all little. In the case of bare-root plants you should heel them in the garden.

Plants that are marginal in cold winters are a dilemma for many gardeners. It is advisable to always insure against winter loss by taking cuttings, divisions or seed so that, if necessary, you can start again the following season. You can also protect the parent plant with a layer of mulch, taking care not to lay it too close to woody stems, wrapping or planting in a sheltered place.

Any plants planted in autumn can be vulnerable, as they have not had time to acclimatise and may not have hardened off sufficiently before the first frost occur. Watch these plants carefully and give additional protection in their first winter.

Ensuring that plants are not vulnerable to a killing freeze-thaw, that is, winter sun followed by freezing nights, will improve the chances of a successful wintering over. This means planting away from winter sun, especially for winter and early spring flowering shrubs that may be coaxed in growth too early. Hamamellis (witch hazels), magnolias and camellias are all plants to site carefully.

Plan for Winter
With thought and planning, getting your garden through a frosty winter is not as hard as it might seem. Plant wisely, prepare borders for the cold and then enjoy the frosty images and the chill- after all a period of cold weather kills those horrid garden pests.

Cold, frosty winters are a gardening challenge but the rewards are clear crisp days, and a wonderful spring display of bulbs, blossom and, later, paeonies

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Deciduous trees drop their leaves and become dormant in winter

Deciduous trees drop their leaves and become dormant in winter

Heel-in Bare Root Plants

Heeling-inIf you cannot plant bare root plants immediately because the ground is frozen or too wet then 'heel them in'.

Dig a trench in a shaded, empty border or the vegetable garden and, laying the plants at a 45o angle, cover them with soil and firm gently.

Plants can be left for some days, or several weeks, as long as you ensure that they do not dry out.

Plant them in their permanent home before the new seasons growth begins.

Dahlias are not cold hardy

Dahlias are not cold hardy

Dormancy and a Natural Anti-freeze
In low temperatures plant metabolisms slow down to a virtual standstill, slowing chemical activity.

As the plant reduces moisture content and stores sugars to provide for growth in the coming season, the concentration of level of sugars increases. This forms a natural anti-freeze and protects the plant from moisture within cells freezing, rupturing membranes and killing that part of the plant.

Paeonia 'Festiva Maxima' enjoys a decent winter chill

Paeonia 'Festiva Maxima' enjoys a decent winter chill

Create an Ice-Free Zone
Create an Ice-Free ZoneCreate an ice-free zone in ponds and containers. An old tennis ball left floating on the surface will contract when ice expands and help to prevent broken containers!

Viburnum farreri
Winter colour from Viburnum farreri

Plants for the Winter Garden Inspiration and ideas for the Winter Garden
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Last revised 10 Jun '02