Homes & Gardens

How to Protect Your Plants in Winter

Don’t let winter destroy all of your hard work. The cold can kill, but here are some of the most effective ways to protect your plants in winter.

The American author Barbara Winkler once wrote that, ‘Every gardener knows that under the cloak of winter lies a miracle.’ If, though, you want to coax out that miracle and enjoy your slice of the earth through the bountiful summer, it is imperative that you also look after your garden in the winter.

The cold can pose a significant threat to plants – and that includes evergreens, which are generally more acclimatised to winter conditions. In particular, although it looks so atmospheric and beautiful, frost can cause serious damage to tender plant varieties. As the water within the plant cells freezes, it causes damage; you can always spot a frost-damaged plant, which tends to become limp, brown or blackened.

While the cells in hardier plants do tend to be less vulnerable, they are by no means immune to longer spells of severe cold. The surrounding soil can freeze and prevent the plant from getting enough moisture needed to survive.

Since no one wants their hard work or future enjoyment ruined, let's explore six of the most effective ways to protect your garden in winter and guard your plants from frost.

Plant Strategically


As with most things in life, when it comes to winter plants a little planning goes a long way. Our efforts to protect plants in winter should always start with strategic planting to give them their very best chance. Areas that naturally have a greater level of winter protection for plants – such as those parts of the garden that are sheltered by a wall or a large hedge, for example – naturally offer a level of plant cover for winter and should therefore be reserved for more delicate or susceptible vegetation. It is also worth noting that, since frost is frozen water, it will always form first at the lowest points; if, then, you have a dip or hollow in your patch of land, do use that area for planting your hardier species.

When it comes to more delicate varieties and how to protect plants from frost, it would appear to be logical to place them in the sunnier parts of the garden. And yet it is important to also remember that thawing out too quickly from a frost can do more damage than the frost itself. Therefore, do avoid placing your less robust plants in east-facing spots that will attract the sun. Already got them in? It might be worth relocating your plants to give them a better chance at longevity.

Pot Vulnerable Or Delicate Plants


Most of us will inherit our gardens from the previous owners of our houses. It is, therefore, more common than not that we are not starting from the position of having been able to plan everything to perfection from scratch. But that need not be a cause for worry; there are plenty of other measures you can take to ensure frost protection for plants. One of the simplest ways to do this is to consider potting your more delicate specimens, since winter pot plants have the advantage of being portable. Simply, whenever a frost threatens to strike, you can bring them inside for the duration of the icy spell. Straightforward and effective.

Apply A Layer Of Mulch


Just as houses need insulation to keep out the cold, so too does the garden need plant frost protection. Whilst we may discern frost damage in the exterior signs – the limp appearance, the blackened leaves – its effects on outdoor winter plants actually begin in the roots. The good news is that you can help to insulate your tender perennials by adding a 5cm layer of mulch to the plants; this simple act will help to keep the root system warm, and even help prevent the frost from developing in the first place. Do note though, it is vital to add grit around the plants themselves; this will ensure that your winter plant protection in the form of mulch doesn’t clog up its systems, and leaves space for moisture to drain. Miss this step and you could find that the roots rot without adequate drainage.

Cover Delicate Plants With Fleece


When combating the cold, fleece is one of the first things we reach for to warm ourselves up. It stands to reason then that this natural fibre – along with hessian, bracken, straw and polystyrene – can also be used to shield winter outdoor plants from the frost. Whilst, unlike the fleeces we wear, it won’t do much to increase the temperature of the plants, a light fleece will do a good job in protecting them from the icy weather or wind. Do ensure, though, that when a sustained period of milder weather beds in, you remove the covers to guard against sweating and potential rotting (do replace them again if the frost reappears however). And when putting your fleece in place, make sure that it does not weigh down the leaves or branches. If necessary, you can use sticks to prop it up. As winter garden ideas in the UK go, this is a simple, inexpensive and effective one.

Invest In A Greenhouse or Polytunnel


If you have the space, then one of the very best ways to protect your plants is by giving them a solid roof over their heads in the form of a greenhouse or polytunnel. Not only will they keep out the cold and frost, but they will also allow you to control the environment your plants are being cultivated in, as well as trapping heat within the structure (both options do the same job as solar radiation – at a fraction of the cost).

Given that greenhouses or polytunnels allow you to be in control of your growing environment, it follows that they also allow you to extend the growing seasons of winter plants in the UK, as well as maintaining a more constant temperature in the summer too. Win-win.

The Best Hardy Winter Plants


When choosing plants for winter, as a rule of thumb, the hardier the better. As we’ve seen, more delicate plants are certainly an option, but for anyone looking for lower maintenance outdoor plants, these are the ones that make our list.

Peonies


Peonies are great for providing colour in the garden in spring and, if cut back properly, can survive very harsh winters. Available in a wide variety of forms, they are an excellent, not to mention pretty, buy for the garden.

Coneflower (Echinacea)


Though it doesn’t maintain its beautiful purple flowers through the winter, Coneflower can survive harsh temperatures if properly cared for, and return with a good show in the spring.

Lily of the Valley


It may look pretty and fragile, but Lily of the Valley is tougher than it seems. Neither does it need too much in the way of sun, so it’s a perfect plant for shadier areas of the garden.

Hostas


Hostas are reliably beautiful and, if protected with mulch, will withstand the frosts.

Winterberries


This beautiful plant is a symbol of winter; we even look to how abundant they are to predict how hard the season ahead might be. Adding much-craved colour in the garden through its leaner months, it is a hardy option (though do note that it does like full sun and moist soil).

Clematis Cirrhosa


Known as Freckles, this climber thrives in the winter months. Ensure you place it near a border wall to help it grow upward. We love its pale yellow flowers and maroon speckles.

Helleborus Niger


Otherwise known rather beautifully as the Christmas rose, this is a pretty white flower capable of easily withstanding the extremes of winter. Happily, they flower throughout December and grow in pretty clusters.

Maculata Elaeagnus Pungens


Small, fragrant white flowers that appear from autumn onwards. In some lights they can appear silvery, which only adds to the magic of the winter garden.

Abeliophyllum Distichum


Commonly known as white forsythia, this scrambling deciduous shrub
offers delicate white or pale pink flowers and dark leaves on slender branches in late winter. They will survive comfortably during frost or snow conditions.

By Nancy Alsop
November 2021

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