When frost comes calling step in to help

Hard frosts and snow are always anticipated, but never welcome.

Saturday, 16th February 2019, 3:11 pm
Leave the spent hydrangea blooms in place to protect the lower embryo flower buds. Picture by Tom Pattinson.

The negative elements they bring into our everyday lives, as recently, take us temporarily out of our comfort zone; cold fingers and toes, disruption of daily services, cancellations, etc.

In such circumstances, this gardener takes the ‘survival of species’ part of Darwin’s theory quite literally in relation to plants.

There’s a tour of inspection each morning to see how my friends, large and small, are coping with conditions.

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Frost is part of gardening, and it’s comforting to know that plant pests of summer past, now overwintering in some form or other, will be feeling the pinch too.

But it’s the less hardy plants of borders and greenhouse that cause concern.

Such ornamental types, growing permanently outdoors, needed some form of protection in situ as winter approached. The plant size, height and form determined what was offered.

The simple act of leaving summer growth in place as certain shrubs and herbaceous perennials head into winter is often protection enough. When frost calls it’s generally the terminal shoots of less hardy plants that are touched by it first, and we can often step in and salvage the situation by pruning out damaged tips. I always leave the spent hydrangea blooms in place to protect the lower embryo flower buds.

The butterfly bush (buddleja) and mallow (lavatera) are popular summer-flowering shrubs whose blooms develop on the current year’s growth. Both are capable of shooting from near ground level to 2m within weeks. But their soft spring growth can be taken by a late frost.

Pruning them in two stages is a sensible precaution. First comes in autumn, reducing growth from 2m to 1m to avoid wind rock and maintain root stability. Definitive pruning comes in April/May as main growth begins and lower shoots appear.

Similarly, different species of helichrysum can be found in this garden, grown for their attractive foliage.

The so-called curry plant (Helichrysum serotinum) is a favourite. When the blooms fade, tempting though it is to prune these plants to ground level during the autumn border tidy-up, the foliage remains. This protects next summer’s shoots already in place at the heart of each plant and offers valuable extended colour.

With frost around, we can’t even assume our house plants are safe. If they’ve been overwatered and the central heating fails, the combination of cold and wet can prove fatal. Where there’s no double glazing and leaves are touching the glass, there’s a chance they’ll be frozen to it next morning.