Frost Protection for Garden Plants

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I have a big mug of tea sat next to me right now.  I need it because I’ve just come in from outside – it’s officially freezing (written at 7am).

With all this change in temperature it made me think about the plants in the garden and how they cope with cold weather and bouts of snow being dropped on them, so this week I thought I’d go through a few weather protection tips for your garden.

Now I’m guessing when you bought or planted new plants in your garden and it said it was going to be ‘hardy’ that you didn’t need to do anything more with it.  Unfortunately hardy can be applied to drought as well as cold so your beautiful cordyline will be fantastic in a hot summer without much water but the minute the frost appears the plant is going to be put under so much stress it will just die back, never to be returned because it’s thinking to itself this is just too much hard work.

The good news is protection of plants is really easy to do.  The tough bit is knowing what plants need a bit more support over winter.

Lets talk about winter protection

All plants fall roughly in two types of plant structures; herbaceous (made up of perennials but also applies to annuals as well), which are plants without a woody stem, and woody stem (which are also made up mostly of perennial type plants) but can include evergreen, semi-evergreen and deciduous.

Herbaceous:

This makes it easier to know which plants need protection because anything that comes under herbaceous such as foxgloves, bedding plants, mint, tomatoes and hostas are naturally going to die back and hunker down for the cold season by protecting themselves underground or will have finished growing as a plant and left you with seeds to start again next yr.  So in this respect anything that is herbaceous can be ignored now.  There is exception to that if the plants are in pots/containers but I’ll cover that a bit later on.

Wood stems:

Most woody stems look a bit tougher than a green herbaceous plant and usually they don’t need looking after but these plants do need to have an eye kept out for them.  Wood stem plants can range from a huge oak tree to a clematis, fruit trees, conifers, fuchsias, in fact most shrubs that are now either looking very bare in your garden or are still very shiny and green.  Each type of shrub, climber or tree will cope with the weather in it’s own way.  They will either loose all their leaves and conserve all their energy or like a semi-evergreen will keep their leaves until a hard frost hits (over a consecutive period of several days), or they are literally snowed under for days in which case the leaves will drop as the plants shouts out “bloody hell it’s cold!”.

Evergreens:

Probably the hardiest of the bunch in the garden.  They range from conifers to eucalyptus but also ivy, holly, grass and lavender.  Even these plants need a bit of help when the weather gets harsh.  Unlike deciduous where the plant isn’t transporting water around the plant in winter, an evergreen is (to keep the leaves constantly green), so if that water starts to freeze in the leaf structure the plant is going to struggle big time.

So as you look out into your own the plants that have big green leafed plants are going to be first to need cover, as will be any perennials that are showing above ground (strawberries and garlic for example), followed by, and probably most importantly any plants in pots whether they are above or below ground.

The exceptions!

You can’t get away from exceptions – they are there to keep us gardeners on our toes.

  • First of all plant roots.  Doesn’t matter how hardy or deciduous a plant may be, all plants will struggle if the very soil around their roots starts to freeze.  Imagine your feet suddenly being stuck in concrete.  You can’t move, you get pins and needles and eventually you’re feet will go numb.  Same for a plant.  If it can’t move about in the soil it means it can’t get vital nutrients through the roots and up into the stems which means it’s going to suffer quite quickly by saying goodbye.  The other issue is soil displacement.  Frozen soil tends to heave, crack and becomes exceptionally difficult to break up with a fork.  All this can lead roots being very much exposed to harsh winds and temperatures which roots are most definitely not used to cause the plant to suffer really quickly.
  • The other exception is containers and pots.  Most terracotta pots are frost resistant these days but that’s only if they are sheltered, away from harsh winds and aren’t exposed to minus temperatures for days on end.  Plastic pots, while very quick to build up heat and maintain temperature for a longer period than clay they too come under stress in cold weather and will quickly start to deteriorate if they’ve been sat in very sunny periods over summer.  Both plastic and clay pots don’t automatically protect the plant from bad winters either but because they are easy to move it means you can at least get your posts to a more sheltered position even if you don’t/can’t protect them further.

Types of protection:

  • Fleece – this is officially my new best friend.  You can buy a roll of this quite cheaply on the internet these days or get it from your local garden centre.  It’s perfect for covering raised beds, wrapping around shrubs and just draping over pots.  Use canes to create a more solid structure and to stop the wind from blowing the fleece off the bed/plant and hold down with either bricks or tie it around with string.  The reason I like fleece so much is you can control the level of protection with either one or more layers but it allows both light and air to still get to the plant while keeping frost and snow off the leaves.
  • Under glass – heated (required if you want to continue growing veggies throughout the winter) or non-heated both will provide frost/snow protection from delicate plants but will allow light to get to the plant at the same time.
  • Under plastic – You can buy structures of all shapes and sizes in plastic, such as greenhouses or cold frames, which allows you to just pop the plastic cover over the necessary plants as and when required.  Plastic will allow light and air to circulate and while they will protect to a certain temperature they won’t always stop the plant from freezing so be sure to add extra fleece/newspaper or straw around/over the plants if required.
  • Straw – this is great for protecting plant roots.  I’m also experimenting with covering all my garlic bulbs in straw this year.  You can get a good size pack of straw from any discount shop (I think the one I got was £1.99 and it’s covered a fair bit over the year).  Just loosely add the straw around the plant’s base.  Straw allows light and water to get to the plant so it’s a very useful but no good to cover leaves etc else it’ll blow all over the garden at the first gust of wind.
  • String – use this for tying up your ever greens.  That way when the snow comes it won’t land on the leaves and weigh the plant down, and stop the leaves from freezing.

Stay warm 🙂

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What types of weather protection do you use in your garden?  Do you have a plant in your cultivation space that has to have extra special winter care?  

 

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9 thoughts on “Frost Protection for Garden Plants

  1. Right now ALL my outdoor plants have a protective layer of leaves overlaying them … the oaks are finally releasing their leaves, so I’ll be doing the big clean-up soon. One surprise: my new upward-facing hellebores are blooming now. That’s a surprise, as all the others I have will bloom in late January or early February and last through April or May. I’m curious to see how these new ones will last. Thanks for the winter-garden-news post —

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    1. Funny you should mention hellebores – ours are just budding at the moment. Might get a flower before Christmas yet!

      Leaves make a great protector, and of course mulch at the same time so don’t be in too much of a rush to clean up. Oaks are one of the best trees to get mulch from. I spent a whole day cleaning up oak leaves into four big black sacks a couple of weeks back, because I wanted to try making leaf mould. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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