Tending the garden in a cold spell

A heavy fall of snow followed by more of the same and no thaw for a fortnight is something of a blast from the past for the gardener. Most of us have seen nothing like it in this country since the 1980s. Once the immediate practicalities have been addressed how do I get out of the door, for instance-the gardener’s mind begins to move on from the immediate surprise and thrill at the novel beauty of the scene to wonder what effect all this snow will have.

Trees can be vulnerable to snowfall, especially if the snow is wet. The weight of snow can bring a tree down entirely. If it does, there’s nothing much to be done unless it has fallen across a road or onto a roof, as snow cover makes it practically impossible to do anything about it until
a thaw.

The same applies to the more common crisis of a torn branch. Once you can get near it, have a good look, and, if need be, ask a tree surgeon you trust for advice. Usually, the damaged branch can be removed without disaster. Mature cedars of Lebanon are famously vulnerable to this problem, which can be minimised by a team of enthusiasts with very long canes knocking the snow off as soon as it’s fallen. Most conifers are much more tolerant, having evolved to throw off snow, and, indeed, they’re often at their most photogenic in these conditions.

Hedges, especially evergreens such as yew, holly or box, can easily get shoved out of shape by snow sitting on top of them. Generally, the best advice is to sit tight until the usual time for pruning, then cut the sides back into shape. The top will regain its dignity soon enough.

Large shrubs can also get into difficulty. A big hydrangea or rosemary with its branches weighed to the ground can simply be shaken free of snow and is usually none the worse for it. I would be disinclined to prune in the dead of winter unless it’s unavoidable. It’s better to wait until the spring, after the risk of frost damage, when new growth can rapidly replace the lost tissue. Even if a lot of shoots have been broken, resist the temptation to cut the whole lot to the ground, as the reaction in the summer will be a mass of spindly shoots that won’t flower. Better to renew a few shoots each year over a two- or three-year period to allow the system to regain its equilibrium.

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The cold damage inflicted on plant life by a blanket of snow is generally moderate. Snow has an insulating effect, protecting vegetation from the damage that would result if the tissue were exposed to frost. Only those plants that are known to be dubiously hardy need cause concern. It will come as no surprise if Verbena bonariensis plants are polished off, but don’t be in a hurry to dig things up and throw them away, as many apparently dead plants make a gradual recovery and
go on to surprise us all as spring moves into summer.

It may be a different matter, however, with marginally hardy plants such as Agapanthus in outdoor containers. These have their rootballs exposed to cold damage, and can be expected to suffer. Better to go back to the old system of wheeling them into a more sheltered situation-an open shed, for example-during the winter. If the cold doesn’t get them, the sodden soil resulting from the thaw probably will.

There’s little cause for concern regarding lawns, bulbs, hardy herbaceous perennials and other treasures buried under the snow. Snowdrops and hellebores will love these conditions, and some of us will be very pleased if they flower at the proper time this year. Lawns will be fine, although, of course, they’ll lie wet after the thaw. Any resulting pools can be removed by pushing a fork through the surface here and there. In short, snow in the garden may slow things down, but this should give us all the more reason to keep calm and carry on. Who knows, there may be more to come.

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