Plenty of jobs to keep us busy as winter beckons

Verbena bonariensis.
Verbena bonariensis.

Suddenly a sense of urgency has crept into our gardening activities.

The leisurely lawn-cutting routine of summer has gone, so too the casual picking of salad crops from vegetable beds.

Penstemon still flowering.

Penstemon still flowering.

Now we’re into a full-scale salvage operation to save favourite outdoor plants that would otherwise perish when the first serious frost arrives.

This is a protection racket with a difference.

There has always been a question-mark about hardiness hanging over certain outdoor perennials – lobelia cardinalis, verbena bonariensis, penstemon and santolina to name but a few – and we gardeners have approached the problem in various ways.

Lifting each and every one of these plants and offering them winter protection in an unheated greenhouse or frame, has been the ultimate. But that is so demanding of space, even when they are packed close together in deep trays or boxes, the roots covered with spent potting compost or soil.

Hydrangea.

Hydrangea.

So the general trend, encouraged by a series of reasonably mild winters, is to leave them in the garden to take their chance.

A slight modification of this approach has worked for us in recent years.

Granted, our garden is near the coast, but still receives frost and records minus 6 Celsius occasionally, though it’s difficult to recall the last time this temperature was prolonged over several nights.

First there is the taking of stem cuttings as an insurance policy.

This is done in late summer to early autumn but is currently continuing into November because the soft growths are there for the taking.

The cuttings are up to 10cm long and dressed, leaving only three pairs of leaves at the tip.

They are submerged in a bowl of water for a morning and planted in an unheated, domed propagating case filled with damp gritty sand that stands on the greenhouse bench over winter.

Tempting though it is to prune all the dead seasonal growth to soil level in the name of tidiness, far better leave some in place for the extra frost protection it affords ground-based shoots that will develop in the spring.

For example, tease the existing grey-green foliage of cotton lavender apart and you can see them down at the heart of the plant.

For the same reason, it’s better to leave the large, spent flower heads of hydrangea in place, rather than cut and spray them all for winter arrangements.

Next year’s embryo blooms have already formed and are prone to continuous frost.

A final throw of the dice in trying to protect tender plants outdoors, is to cover them with the equivalent of a duvet.

This can be a Heath Robinson-type framework surrounded by fleece, or just draping a precious plant in the substance.

If a young magnolia or camellia has just been planted, such protection will help it through the first winter.

You’d think that the tall, tough-looking globe artichokes, whose presence we enjoy so much, would be hardy characters, but I’m afraid they’re wimps when frost arrives.

However, the simple action of heaping up soil around the crowns gives them all the protection they need.