Life Gardens

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Diarmuid Gavin: How to protect your garden from the frost

As temperatures drop, November is the time to wrap your garden up and put it to bed

Diarmuid Gavin. Photo: Mark Nixon
Diarmuid Gavin. Photo: Mark Nixon

Halloween has come and gone and the delicious mild and sunny autumn has given way to colder weather. There's a bite in the air, trees are dropping leaves at a great rate and there's the imminent prospect of another season ending and a new one beginning.

I've always been amazed at how some flowers stand up to and almost confront the change in temperatures and shortening hours of daylight.

In some sheltered places, bright dahlias can continue to shine right up to this moment, despite the wind and rain. But even their foliage is now blackening so they, like many other tender species, are on the wane.

It's tempting to stay indoors but before you begin the planning and dreaming for next year, it's time to put the garden to bed.

Digging for parsnips
Digging for parsnips

The past few weeks have seen me attack our shrub borders with gusto, cutting back and removing some forsythia, mahonias and cornus which have outstayed their welcome.

Foliage and stems have been mulched and added to the compost heap. And while that material may take some time to break down there's also some 'cooked' stuff - compost which has been breaking down all summer and is now ready for use as a mulch or planting companion to help condition the soil.

Most of the perennial plants that grow in the garden are hardy - we've all learnt this through experience. However, their roots would love some protection - a blanket of material to keep them warm underneath the frost, which for the most part will only penetrate a couple of centimetres.

So, put a liberal sprinkling of good organic humus material around those wonderful herbaceous perennials. And don't worry if there are bulbs planted in among your other flowering beauties - from late winter they will push up through this extra blanket.

If you haven't done so already, now is the time to bring in whatever tender flowers you have under cover. Whether you have a conservatory attached to the house or a garden shed, move your pots of tender specimens of fuchsias and geraniums towards the comfort of a bright but frost-free environment.

If the pots are too heavy to move, you can always protect tender specimens with horticultural fleece or even bubble wrap. Standing any hardy plants that are in pots on bricks for winter will help to avoid waterlogging.

If you are a greenhouse gardener, remember that from now on it can be cooler inside the greenhouse than outside so it may be time to turn on the paraffin lamps or the electric heaters.

And now for one of those lovely winter jobs that involves procreating! We'll be soon in the time territory for hardwood cuttings. You just need to be a little bit organised and have appropriate compost, sharp knives, maybe some rooting hormone, some clean pots or trays or even a cold frame. Have a look at what shrubs are growing in your garden or in neighbouring ones, or friends' plots. If you fancy a cheap and relatively easy way of growing new ones, hardwood cuttings will root through the winter and turn into sturdy small plants by next spring.

Herbaceous perennials with fleshy roots can also be propagated successfully from root cuttings during late autumn and winter. Verbascum, primula, Japanese anemones, acanthus, oriental poppies and phlox are all suitable species for this method.

The warm autumn has meant that my lawn is still growing and the grass is a little bit fluffy and woolly - I'm going to get out and cut it once more this weekend.

When I have it done, it'll be time to clean the mower and get it down to the local hire shop for its annual sharpening and service. Make sure all your machinery - whether simpler stuff like spades and shovels or the slightly more complex motorised machines - are clean, oiled and ready to go again as soon as winter's over.

One thing to note, the spade and shovel mightn't be redundant for the winter just yet - in a matter of weeks it'll be time for bare root stock to be planted.

So if you had been planning to lay a new hedge, plant an orchard or even a specimen tree, mid-winter is an excellent time, and the stock is generally a good deal cheaper than plants in containers. So, begin to think about what you might want to plant in a month to six weeks and plan for that accordingly.

Other garden projects include ensuring that there's enough food for garden birds as many of the berries that they enjoy will soon be gone.

And, finally, one good thing that comes with the cold winter weather setting in: a touch of frost is just what your parsnips like to sweeten up so they will be ready for lifting soon.


Grow new shrubs by taking some hardwood cuttings. Find the appropriate compost, sharp knives, rooting hormone, and clean pots. They will turn into sturdy small plants by spring.

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