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Preventing Winter Damage in Your Garden

Winter is always a challenging time for gardeners in the UK as the weather is less than ideal and one big storm can damage even the hardiest of plants or trees. As well as this, there are a couple of diseases and pests to look out for in your lawn that can be disastrous if allowed to take hold. Fortunately there are many ways you can winter proof your garden (and lawn). Read on to find out how.

Frost & Freezing Conditions

In the UK, snow and hard frost every year are a given.

Despite looking pretty, they can cause a lot of damage to our beloved gardens, killing new growth and causing irreparable damage to tender and half hardy plants.

Low temperatures that can damage frost-sensitive plants can begin as early as October and continue until March or even longer.

Freezing conditions cause the water in plant cells to freeze, then the morning sun causes that water to defrost rapidly, expanding the cells and rupturing the cell walls leaving the plant looking black and limp.

This can occur repeatedly over winter which can cause even the hardiest of plants to suffer or die.

A further issue with freezing conditions is when the ground freezes.

This leaves the roots of the plants unable to absorb water, leading them to develop drought type symptoms like wilting which then in turn causes the plant to suffer die-back.

There are many different way to protect your plants from frost and freezing conditions, including:

Frost Fleece: Also known as horticultural fleece, frost fleece is ideal for protecting plants. It is made of a lightweight material that is permeable so allows water and air to pass through, but protects from not only frost but wind, hail and pests too! A versatile choice, it can either be loosely wrapped around larger plants in pots and tied with string, or laid like a blanket with plants in groups and secured with pegs. Ensure you leave a gap between the plants and the material if possible to allow light to pass through. The best time to apply is at the first frost forecast.

Bubble Insulation: Use a triple laminated insulation (not to be confused with bubble wrap) bubble insulation can be used to line a greenhouse to protect very tender plants from frost easily (though do be sure not to apply too thick to allow light to still pass through), or can be used to wrap around containers to prevent them from freezing and cracking. Wrap the whole container and plant in bubble wrap but make sure you can unwrap it easily enough. During warmer days, unwrap the plant to allow light and gentle heat to pass through to prevent the plant from sweating and dying.

Straw: Straw is a natural alternative to the above materials or can be used alongside them. Either wedge into the crown of plants or the branches of shrubs, or wrap the plant with fleece and stuff straw in the top. Another versatile option, straw can also be used as a mulch material (see below).

Mulch: As mentioned above, one of the biggest causes of winter damage to plants is when roots of plants become frozen for extended periods of time or repeatedly frozen and thawed. A layer of mulch above the soil around them is an excellent way to help prevent this and as an extra bonus, it will add nutrients to the soil and help to retain water. You can use many different materials for mulching; straw, bark, well-rotted manure or organic compost. Just be sure come spring that you check it isn’t smothering new growth.

Cold Frame or Greenhouse: If you have or plan to grow lots of plants from seed or lots of tender plants and you do not have a greenhouse or cold frame, you may find it beneficial to build one to protect your vulnerable plants over winter. They are ideal for overwintering plants that do not tolerate temperatures less than 4-5°C.

Lawns Infested with Diseases or Pests

Your lawn is much more susceptible to diseases and pests in winter as the grass is weaker and fighting them off is harder work.

There are several diseases that can affect your lawn over winter, including Snow Mould (Fusarium Patch) and Red Thread (Corticum Disease).

Snow Mould is likely to be present if you have yellow/brown patches of grass and signs of Red Thread are patches of lawn that have a red or pink appearance. In terms of common lawn pests, the two to be aware of over winter are Chafer Grubs and Leatherjackets. Both live underneath your lawn and eat the roots of the grass from late summer right through to spring.

Signs of either of these pests are very large patches of dirt where your lawn should be (or if it is a really bad infestation, your whole lawn could be gone!).

Luckily it is relatively easy to minimise the likelihood of any diseases or pests attacking your lawn – this includes:

Feed your Lawn: Keep your lawn healthy to begin with by applying regular seasonal fertilisers, including a specialist autumn/winter feed. Keeping your lawn in tip top condition to begin with means it will be strong enough to fight off the disease or pest to start with. Most feeds contain iron sulphate which turns the soil slightly acidic which make it less appealing for grubs.

Spiking/Scarifying: As part of an overall treatment, it is wise to spike and scarify your lawn every spring and autumn.

Overseeding: As part of a healthy lawn care programme, we advise overseeding twice a year in spring and autumn as part of your lawn care programme. This helps to prepare the grass for more use in spring and summer and then helps to repair any damages in autumn.

Mowing: Mow your lawn often and using the correct height blades. Your blades should be lower in summer and higher in autumn. Keep mowing until the first frost and restart mowing in March once it has warmed up slightly.

Nematodes: Nematodes are a microscopic worm that can kill the pests so can be a successful method for treating Leatherjackets and Chafer Grubs but must be used correctly. They are best used between August and October when the soil is still slightly warmer and moist, and are only active in destroying pests if the soil is above 12°C.

Flushing & Cover: Another method to rid your lawn of pests is to saturate it with water and cover with a black plastic sheeting pegged down overnight then uncover in the morning where you will see many lying on the surface of the grass, ready to be munched on by birds.

By remaining vigilant with the weather and stocking up on your winter essentials, this should help to minimise any plant loss this year and ensure you have a beautiful garden to enjoy yet again next year when the weather warms up!

Wind & Rain

Further winter problems that can affect your plants include wind damage which causes cold damage, wind scorch, dehydration or in worse cases the plant being blown over or stems snapping, or over saturation from heavy rain which causes root rot.

There are simple remedies for both of these problems, including:

Move Them: Transferring any vulnerable container plants to an area with shelter next a wall or fence and in groups. Better yet, bring any tender plants inside under shelter of a greenhouse or porch.

Use Wind Netting: if plants in the ground are suffering wind damage, if practical you could build a wind shelter with netting to provide better shelter.

Support Them: Any plants that seem like they may need a bit of support over the winter as they have fragile stems, either use plant supports and tie them to bamboo canes or if practical, install a trellis.

For saplings and growing trees, you could use tree guards or tree defenders. For larger trees, tie them to a wooden stake using tree ties so as not to damage the trunk.

Mulch: As mentioned above, adding a layer of mulch is an excellent way to prevent frost getting to the roots of your plants but it is also ideal for helping to both reduce water evaporation from wind and prevent excessive water build up from heavy rain.

Raise Your Pots: Ensure any container pots are raised off the ground using pot feet or plant trolleys so that they aren’t sitting in pools of water that can cause root rot. This also helps prevent the pots from freezing because they are too water logged and then splitting if it turns even colder. It is also a good idea to check that your pots have drainage holes in for extra drainage. Both drainage holes and raising the pots also help to allow air circulation around the pot, helping to encourage healthy roots.

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