Winter weather can bring many problems for gardeners when it comes to keeping plants alive. Lower temperatures, strong winds, ice and snow all affect different plants in different ways. Frost in particular can kill a plant completely and seemingly overnight by damaging the cell walls of the plant. Even the toughest of perennial and hardy plants can succumb to a harsh winter.
Luckily there are steps you can take to ensure your greenery survives the winter.
Prevention and planning
Damage can be done when the soil becomes frozen for prolonged spells. When this happens plants are unable to take up water so they die. Roots can start to rot when the soil begins to thaw. Very cold and frosty weather during the spring months can kill off budding blossom on fruit trees and can lead to a much reduced fruit yield. So what can you do to minimize the damage?
First of all you need to choose carefully what kind of plants, trees and shrubs you want in your garden and that you choose those which are more likely to survive in your area. For example, if you live in a part of the country which is regularly battered by strong winds you may have to reconsider those Japanese Maples and Acers. As beautiful as they are, many of them are delicate and cannot tolerate wind. Some are hardy though so get some advice on this from an experienced grower who can tell you which ornamental trees are best for your situation.
Winter care starts in the summer
Careful consideration of planting is the key to ensuring the survival of your plants. If you are planting tender specimens these need to be placed in a sheltered spot such as against a south-facing wall which is likely to retain warmth from the sun, or under leafy trees and shrubs. If possible, plant very tender specimens in tubs or pots so that you can move them into a greenhouse, porch or outbuilding during the worst of the winter weather. If you just don’t have the facilities or the space to move them around, invest in a roll of plant fleece and wrap this around the plant and around the pot too.
If you can, lift pots slightly off the ground; pot feet are perfect as raising pots just a couple of inches prevents waterlogging – another killer of plants. It may be an idea to take cuttings of your tender plants if a harsh winter is expected. Nurture these in a warm greenhouse or on a windowsill in the house.
Exotic palms, Cordylines and Tree Ferns should be protected by wrapping in fleece or straw-lined hessian. Tie their leaves into bunches to protect the tender growing crowns.
When you feed plants during the summer growing season be careful not to use too much of a high-nitrogen fertilizer. Nitrogen encourages lots of leaf growth which may be too sappy and tender to survive a frost. Don’t over-feed your plants either. Many gardeners assume that is a plant is looking sickly this must be down to poor nutrition when it’s often more to do with weather conditions. Most plants just need feeding in spring and again in high summer. Once the growing season is finished and we go into the fall season it is a good idea to spread mulch around the roots of tender plants.
This could be simple garden compost, manure, leaf mold or straw and it will do a good job in protecting tender roots over the winter as well as providing vital nutrients and, incidentally, protection for the bugs and insects that wild birds like to eat. Some evergreen plants will benefit from a layer of mulch around the base to protect from frost and provide moisture.
Don’t be tempted to hard prune everything in the fall either. Leaving the old growth on will help to protect the crown of the plant in frosty weather and in some cases can provide structural interest in the garden when there is not much else going on.
When it snows
A light layer of snow, apart from looking pretty, can act as an insulator but if you live in an area that has heavy snowfalls you need to act quickly. Heavy layers of snow can break branches and stems so make sure to clear the snow off of trees and shrubs. Greenhouses and cold frames will need to be cleared of snow in order to let in light and prevent damage to the structures. If possible avoid walking on your lawn in the snow to avoid turf compaction and damage.
Indoor plants need special care in the winter too. Most will go dormant through the colder months and so will need only an occasional light watering with tepid, not cold, water. If they appear to be a little droopy or they start to lose leaves don’t assume this means a lack of water. It may simply be because they are too near a heat source so move them to a cooler windowsill if this is the case. Winter bloomers like Christmas Cactus though will require watering and a little high-phosphorus fertilizer whilst in flower.
Don’t forget to prepare your garden pond for winter and this is best carried out in fall. Clear all dead leaves and flower heads out of the water and do this for as long as it takes. Plant material will rot and release methane gas which can kill any fish you have in the pond and is bad for visiting wildlife too. Water lettuce and water hyacinth should be removed after a frost. Water lilies can be left on the water providing it is at least 3″ deep. And remember to keep your oxygen pumps in working order. Any tropical water plants may need to be taken indoors and kept moist. Take advice from your water garden expert on which need special care.
If you really don’t have the time for out-of-season gardening the easy answer is to choose plants that can survive a harsh winter like Sedums, Peonies and Columbines, which more or less look after themselves. A good plant supplier will point you in the right direction.