There may be trouble ahead. Just as memories of February’s ‘Beast from the East’ start to fade, the spectre of more extreme weather looms as experts predict another harsh winter, characterised by snow early in the season.
‘We expect things to turn significantly colder and more wintry during the second half of autumn,’ says James Madden, forecaster for Exacta Weather.
‘All our long-range projections have been showing for quite some time that December is likely to be colder than average,’ James continues. ‘We are expecting several widespread snowy periods early in the month.’
If there is any truth in the old wives’ tale that the more red berries on our trees in autumn, the harsher the winter, then nature is already aware what is in store for her. September saw rowan trees deliver a spectacular burst of colour and holly is now laden with a bumper crop of berries.
Our poor gardens suffered enough during an unusually hot and dry summer; the last thing we need is for them to be ravaged by extreme weather again as the thermometer drops. However, a blessing in disguise may be just around the corner in the form of a little white magic.
While snow is traditionally considered to be one of the most severe types of winter weather, it is actually one of the best for gardens. We should take heart from the truly spectacular display of blossom and blooms this spring (when it finally arrived). Far from being damaged by being buried in snow in the early part of the year, research shows this blanket may in fact have afforded the nascent blooms some insulation and protected them from the real dangers: wind and frost.
Friend, Not Foe
Snow should rightly be seen as a gardener’s friend, not foe. As it is 90 percent air, a thick layer of snow protects plants and their roots from plummeting temperatures – and likewise stops plants from responding too quickly to occasional spikes of warm weather, only to be caught out when the frost returns.
The nurturing properties of snow do not end there. It can be a perfect propagator, providing many seeds with the moist but cool conditions they need to begin the germination process. It is also a natural fertiliser – as the flakes fall they collect atmospheric nitrogen, which is then slowly released into the soil, providing much-needed nutrition for your plants. As those delicate, intricately patterned flakes flurry down, they are not merely providing a beautiful backdrop to your garden; they are nourishing it, too. Melt water from snow is also stored within the soil, giving plants a head start when spring finally arrives.
Winter-proofing your Garden
• Of course, a gardener’s remit is to give nature a helping hand – and winter is no exception. Here are some ways you can nurture your plants through the winter ahead, no matter the weather:
• While snow itself can be a boon for plants, its weight can be an issue. After a heavy snowfall, it is worth shaking the snow from tender branches and even trees and hedges, which can become distorted if snow is allowed to lie.
• Let the light in: there is no point in having a greenhouse or cold-frame if the sun can’t get through to the plants inside. Scrape any snow off to give tender plants and seeds the best chance.
• If you have a greenhouse, move pots inside to protect against frost. Any pots left outside should be raised on ‘feet’ to prevent them from becoming waterlogged.
• Climbers or plants trained against walls can be insulated by wrapping the stems in chicken wire and filling the cavity with dead leaves, straw or bracken.
• Protect herbaceous plants and evergreens with a thick mulch around their roots. You can also use chicken wire and straw to create a ‘cloche’ to cover tender plants on frosty nights.
• While there is nothing more tempting than a carpet of freshly fallen, unspoilt snow on grass, resist the urge to walk on it if you can. You can damage the turf and may leave a more lasting footprint than you intended.
When the going gets tough, weather-wise, these little fighters get going. We’ve picked five of the hardiest plants around to help you create a thriving winter garden.
Autumn Joy (Sedum Herbstfreude)
Good-looking and easy to grow, this perennial is famed for its long season of interest, bringing colour to your border from early summer well into winter. Beginning in spring with neat, pale green flower buds, Autumn Joy is aptly named, as the pink starry flowers which emerge in late summer continue to deepen in colour and intensity through autumn until the plant is aflame with deep
White Dogwood (Cornus Alba)
Its flowers may be white, but it’s the cherry-red stems that are the real star turn of this hardy dogwood. Low-maintenance but high-impact, White Dogwood will hold interest throughout the winter. As autumn approaches, its delicate white flowers are eclipsed by the showy display of its leaves as they transform to a stunning red. Newly grown, pearly-white berries steal the show later in the season, before the stems themselves take centre stage as the leaves are shed. Native to Siberia, White Dogwood is at home in the cold but does prefer damper ground, so will thrive in a snowy garden.
Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus Foetidus)
Despite its less-than-savoury common name, this handsome plant has no noticeable smell and is much prized for its resistance to frost, evergreen foliage and distinctive winter floral display. The pale green of the Stinking Hellebore’s large bell-shaped flowers perfectly offsets the red stems of White Dogwood, making them ideal planting companions.
Viburnum (Viburnum Tinus ‘Lisarose’)
‘Lisarose’ brings both beauty and substance to winter borders. Bushy and vigorous, this Viburnum will thrive in even the harshest winters, providing good ground cover and also giving shelter to smaller, more tender plants. There is a delicate side to ‘Lisarose’ too, with small flower buds blushing deep pink-red as the cold weather comes in, and a pretty show of pink and white flowers lasting from the onset of winter well into spring. As the days lengthen, ‘Lisarose’ has a final trick up her sleeve – an abundance of dark blue berries, providing a contrast to the pastel shades of your spring flowers.
Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Renowned for its healing properties, this frost-busting plant also provides a welcome contrast to the russets and subdued greens of your winter garden, with bursts of brightest yellow. Its abundant flowers grow in saffron-like strands, and are every bit as exotic, emitting a heady fragrance somewhere between citrus and spice. For a truly dramatic effect which will also provide your plants with a welcome wind-break, why not create a Witch Hazel hedge?