Plants growing too soon, gardens being battered by wind and rain, how on earth do gardeners cope with unseasonable conditions?
Given some of the extraordinary weather we have experienced so far this winter we felt we would share our tips for how to cope with it in the garden.
So far, compared with normal winter weather we have experienced warm, wet and windy conditions from as early as October 2013 onwards and it is still unseasonably warm. These present a particular set of challenges in the garden.
Our survey shows how warmer weather has rocked plant growth.
When conditions are balmy in winter, be on the lookout for unseasonably early growth in hedges and the like as one of the most significant drivers of plant activity is temperature. At Ashridge Nurseries, we started a New Years Day survey of plant growth six years ago simply out of curiosity. It is in no way scientific as it involves measuring the longest catkin that we can find on a single, well-established hazel outside one of the office windows. On January 1st 2014 the longest catkin measured 7.2 cm, which is nearly 2.5 inches long. That is also nearly twice the length of our previous record of 3.9 cm. The implication is that plant growth is more advanced than usual. This means that there is an increased risk of relatively tender plants making soft young growth that will be damaged or killed by a sharp frost or protracted freeze.
Anticipate frost after warm weather in winter.
- Keep your plants cosy.
Try to protect plants in your garden where possible, especially if they are tender or are newly planted and have not had time to acclimatise. Straw, sacking, fleece or a combination of all three are all good insulators. It is better not to use plastics such as bubblewrap which does not breathe.
- Be ready to feed the birds.
Birds are having it relatively easy at present as there is no shortage of food. When a cold snap comes, as it will, they will not have become used to short rations and many will starve unless we help a bit.
- Fish need feeding too.
If you have a pond, don’t forget that fish are more active when temperatures are higher. There is generally a shortage of insect life in winter and therefore they may be grateful for a little food. But do not overfeed.
- Fungal infections thrive in warm conditions.
If you have not already cleaned up fallen leaves and dead branches, then now is a good time to do so. Leaves such as oak, Hornbeam, beech, sycamore are safe to either incorporate in your compost heap or to put into a separate leaf heap to rot down to produce leaf mould. However all fruit tree, rose and soft fruit leaves as well as leaves from ornamental subjects such as pyracantha, magnolia, photinia and weigela should be burnt or taken to the local dump. Make a heap out of fallen branches in a corner of the garden to provide shelter for hedgehogs, toads and a huge range of invertebrates.
- Delay clipping box
We usually advise clipping box hedges after Christmas as it is a time when box blight is inactive. This year we would recommend waiting until there has been a decent cold snap, although please do not clip box or for that matter prune anything else when the temperature is below freezing.
Pay attention to windy weather
At any time of year, wind is something which gardeners need to pay attention to. The British Isles have had a veritable battering over the last few months. No one therefore needs to be warned about the need to ensure that plants are secure. However just because they were in November, does not mean that they still are. Persistent winds have an unpleasant habit of weakening both plants and fixings.
Our list of things to watch out for:
- Check for stress in trees.
If you have a large trees in your grounds then just walk around looking at the area where branches meet the trunk to see if there is any sign of stress or splitting. If there is and you are not sure what to do, talk to a tree surgeon. Trees that are particularly prone to losing branches suddenly when they are large include Scots pine, copper and green beech, false acacia and cedar.
- Monitor and if need be secure stakes and fixings.
Any newly planted subject that was staked will have depended on that stake and tie to remain upright over the last few months. Stakes work loose, and ties loos-en when subjected to repeated stress. So give every stake they wiggle and if it is loose firm it up with a heavy hammer or post driver. Replace worn and torn ties. If you have any large climbing plants and calluses or on wires secured to walls or posts, especially if they are exposed to the south-west, then check wires trellises and fixings.
- Reduce windage on bushy plants.
A number of plants are subject to wind rock. Bush roses are probably the best-known of these. Even without leaf, an unpruned bush rose presents quite a large “sail area” and strong gusts of wind rock the plant backwards and forwards loosening it on the ground and preventing root development. So if you have not already done so, work around your rose border reducing the branches that you intend to prune in early spring by about half the amount that you would normally pruned by. There's no need to be precise about this, you are just trying to reduce the size of the plant without taking out more wood then you will when you prune it.
- Have a thought for garden structures.
Fences, lean-tos, garden sheds, greenhouses and pergolas are not necessarily designed to withstand repeated buffeting by 60 and 70 mph winds.
- After a gale, check all newly planted hedges and shrubs.
If they appear to have been loosened, then gently firm the soil back around their roots with the ball of your foot. Tread don’t stamp but do it firmly enough to ensure really good contact between soil and root as well as helping them remain upright.
Rain's a blessing but too much can be a curse.
As a Rogers Outrank business based in the South West, we are more aware than many of the impact of more than enough rain. From a gardener’s perspective, however, most rain is a blessing as it saves work and money. However, there can be too much of a good thing and most of the United Kingdom is probably past that point by now. Most of the UK has been subject to a litany warnings of at best very heavy rainfall and at worst severe flooding. For newly planted plants, this is serious for two reasons. The first is that plants roots need to breathe and with very few exceptions (willow, alder) shrubs and trees do not survive in waterlogged ground. The traditional (and correct) advice for planting almost anything is to put it into a hole in the ground which contains soil enriched with organic matter. By definition, this soil will be less compact than the surrounding ground and it will therefore tend to fill with water. If the ground does not drain well, for example, if it is heavy clay, the planting hole will remain full of water for an extended period.
- After heavy rain, wait until watering.
If you have planting holes, or have planted hedge plants such as yew, beech and hornbeam into trenches that are not draining then, as a minimum, do not be tempted to water for several weeks after the heavy rain has passed.
- Dig a Ditch.
Digging a relief trench, if the terrain makes it possible, to allow the planting hole/trench to drain will be beneficial. You can always fill it in later.
- Consider global warming in your planting plans.
If, like many experts, you believe that the British Isles will become increasingly wet as global warming advances, then it would be prudent to amend your planting plans so that you choose subjects that prefer wetter conditions.
- More rain makes the ground less secure.
Heavy rain also tends to soften the ground and when that is followed by strong winds then even small newly planted subjects can be pushed over and in extreme cases blown out of the ground.
- Top tip.
Our best advice is that if your ground is too wet, don’t plant until it is drier. There is plenty of time left for that to happen.