GARDENING: The presence of frost can prove positive

Weatherwise, we’ve experienced it all recently. More than enough rain to keep the nearby river in flood and create no-go areas in the garden.

Snow-covered Aucuba `Crotonifolia.`
Snow-covered Aucuba `Crotonifolia.`

Frosts to test the hardiness of our toughest plants, and a high wind-chill factor throughout. The arrival of hail, sleet and snow completes our unwanted meteorological experience, even though it highlights the variegated shrub foliage. We might well wonder whether any good comes from such adverse gardening conditions! Surprisingly, there are positive aspects to be found in the presence of frost.

In a mild winter, garden pests stand a greater chance of survival but not when it is severe and prolonged. A combination of this and the garden bird effect, where insectivores are constantly searching for the eggs and pupae of pests, represents a positive start for the season ahead.

We gardeners can also benefit from the rock-hard soil conditions frost brings to ornamental borders. They can be accessed for maintenance without causing the damage to soil structure that would occur, were we to plod through them in wet conditions.

We recently took advantage of this on days when a max/min thermometer in the unheated greenhouse recorded minus Celsius figures. First came the final pruning of buddleja, lavatera, escallonia and remaining roses situated in a long border, then I welcomed local tree surgeon Andrew, who reduced the height of a tall silver birch (Betula pendula) and tackled one side of the beech hedge. It's now thirty-plus centimetres less in width, there`s more walking space along the adjoining pathway and the top will be more accessible when clipping time arrives.

There`s good reason to welcome winter frost if you`ve heavy clay soil. It can play a key role in breaking down solid clumps over time, if the land is dug in advance to expose large surface areas. This, in conjunction with the incorporation of natural materials, organic matter, composted material, gritty sand, lime, etcetera will improve the soil structure and unlock a rich mineral

content in the process. The final point in defence of frost relates to our physical and mental

health, for the duration of this pandemic and beyond. Anyone currently pursuing a daily outdoor activity, be it a stroll in the garden, walk around the block, running, or riding, will confirm that limited exposure to the elements brings a feelgood factor. Medical opinion backs this up. So, I`m all for wrapping up warmly, getting out in the garden whatever the weather!

There`s been little respite from the cold in our greenhouse recently, the temperature hovering around 0 to 5 Celsius. I normally use it as a bolt hole to recover from a spell in the garden, but things will improve as the month unfolds and the solar effect increases.

Despite the lack of heat, flower buds are beginning to swell on the `Peregrine` peach which is normally in full bloom by the end of February. It was pruned and cleaned up immediately after leaf fall last autumn. Planted a decade ago, it's a reliable cropper whose early fruits need thinning out to encourage large, juicy peaches in late July. Pots and bowls of forced hyacinths and daffodils have tolerated the same cold environment in developing, and the earliest are now blooming merrily in the modestly warm conservatory. Those still shooting on the greenhouse staging will offer continuity indoors well into March.

There's also promising growth on strawberry plants, `Hapil,` `Florence` and `Sweet Colossus` that were lifted earlier from the outdoor bed, potted and transferred to the greenhouse. Meanwhile, a leaf lettuce crop in the border has run its course, and there`s time to start another from seed before a tomato occupies the space.

A propagating box with soil-warming cable, switched on recently for seed sowing, is our one resort to luxury. With a holding capacity of sixty small pots filled with general purpose compost. They will host broad bean `The Sutton,` garden pea `Early Onward` and onion set `Stuttgarter.` The thermostat is set at 15 Celsius for germination, but once they`ve all emerged it`s out onto the greenhouse staging for weaning at 10 to 12 Celsius in full daylight.