It may be a little tardy, but after a soggy interval, it certainly feels as if Winter is finally back here again at Chartwell right now. The night temperatures outdoors have got as low as -5C, while during the day it hasn’t risen above freezing on several occasions recently. While this certainly creates some stunning seasonal scenery for us and our visitors to enjoy, as some of the pictures in this blog will testify, it isn’t all plain sailing when it comes to trying to work in these conditions and look after and protect our plants.
On a very basic level the soil is obviously too hard to dig on work with and we have to grit paths to make them safe for everyone to walk on them. The training of our wall roses must also stop as the stems will be too brittle to bend into position and we must also make sure our fish and fowl have access to unfrozen water in the ponds and lakes.
We also try not to walk on any of our formal lawns as it causes the frozen grass leaves to fracture. When this happens the frost actually ruptures the leaf cells, seriously damaging the blades. The result is that dark, ugly foot prints form in the lawn and stay there for quite some time. Frost and more often snow can also encourage the growth of fungal diseases which thrive in the cool damp conditions. With this in mind we are currently extending the paths around our Main Terrace lawn which will enable us to protect the turf during Winter much more easily.
Very cold weather, resulting in frost, can cause the water in plant cells to freeze, which in turn can damage the cell walls. Plants suffering from frost damage become limp, with blackened and distorted foliage and stems. Even evergreen plants, which we might think of as being immune to cold damage, often turn brown while the leaves of tender plants sometimes take on a translucent appearance. Hardy plants and tough evergreens can also be damaged by prolonged spells of severe cold when the soil becomes frozen. This results in roots being unable to take up water which means plants can die from lack of moisture.
There is plenty we can do as gardeners to prevent any damage occurring to our plants though. The most obvious answer is to only grow hardy plants which are well suited to our own region and microclimate. Avoiding the use of high-nitrogen fertilizers late in the year will help because they encourage plants to make lots of sappy leafy growth that is particularly susceptible to damage from cold weather. We also make sure we don’t plant any tender plants in frost pockets or against east and north facing walls for instance. Under and tree or shrub or against a south-facing wall would be ideal however. Although we cut down the old material on many of our hardy perennials (except where we want to preserve the seed heads such as along the Winter Border for instance) we leave last seasons growth on our more tender plants such as Cuphaea cyanea for example as this will help to protect the central crown of the plant and take the brunt of any frost damage.
Providing plants with physical protection is another obvious measure. This might involve fleece, glass cloches or mulching layers of compost or straw. The pictures below show a couple of ways that we try to protect some of our less hardy specimens:
There is still plenty for us to do and for our visitors to see here in Churchill’s gardens and estate at this time of year. So get your thermal socks on and come and enjoy the frosty fronds and crisp icy views here at Chartwell soon. Just make sure you bring a camera and a couple of quid for a cup of hot tea afterwards!