Grit yourself for winter: Rooting your plants during wet, freezing conditions

The trick with helping garden plants this winter may lie more in what we do with the soil as opposed to which plants we choose. Using horticultural grit as a soil additive is hugely beneficial. Picture: iStock

Peter Dowdall offers suggestions on how you can root for your plants during wet, freezing conditions.

Social media and climate change have one thing in common — they both have their share of unbelievers, people who hold the view they are not here to stay. Well, for better or worse, social media ain’t going anywhere and nor does it seem are the effects of climate change.

We have recently experienced Storm Diana, the fourth storm this year, and no doubt more to come. It has been some year of extremes in Ireland, we had snow and negative temperatures in March, followed some four short weeks later by one of the warmest and most extended droughts that we have ever experienced in Ireland and now, we’re back once more to storm season.

Time will tell if we are to face the low temperatures and droughts more regularly or if the summer of 2018 will be spoken about for years to come. But there can be no argument that we are seeing year-on-year increases in the number and the ferocity of storms battering the country.

How will the gardens react to all this ‘weather’? Well, it’s a difficult one as the landscape is changing — we now need to look for plants in our garden which will tolerate extreme frost and snow, then resist the drought and finally cope with the high winds and rainfall amounts. There are, of course, many plants which will tolerate these conditions as most of our garden plants came through this year.

The trick with helping our garden plants may lie more in what we do with the soil as opposed to which plants we choose. I’m a huge believer in using horticultural grit as a soil additive. When planting a new bed or even new individual plants, excavate down about 30cm and incorporate a layer of grit about 5-10cm in depth and then plant above this layer. This brings several advantages, it encourages roots to travel downwards beneath the layer of grit in search of nutrients and water, essential in times of drought. You can also go a step further by adding a layer of high-nutrient material such as farmyard manure or chicken manure beneath the grit which again will encourage the roots to grow down, deeper into the soil. This will also help during the storms as plants which have deeper roots and are more anchored in the soil will have a better chance of withstanding the high winds.

The other big advantage of using horticultural grit in this way is that, during periods of excessive rainfall, the grit will draw the moisture downwards and away from the base of the plant, leaving it less susceptible to basal rot and other fungal infections which thrive in a waterlogged soil. I use the term ‘horticultural grit’ and not normal grit as this product is washed which means you’re not introducing high levels of lime which may be the case with unwashed grit.

Encouraging plant roots to grow deeper in the soil will also help to a degree with frost resistance but if the temperatures are low enough then there is really very little you can do except protect plants with horticultural fleece, straw and newspapers. If freezing conditions are to be a feature of the future then plant choice will become more and more important. No one wants to be replacing their garden plants each spring.

However, there are plants which won’t tolerate any amount of cold but are still so worthy of a place in our summer gardens. These frost-tender specimens should still be used but I would suggest growing them in pots and containers which can then be moved indoors to a glasshouse or polytunnel during the winter. Abutilons, Tibouchinas, hibiscus, even the strelitzia or Bird of Paradise will all add a touch of exotic flair during the summer months and can be treated in this way.

For now, don’t forget to make your garden safe as we enter the depths of winter. Check for overhanging branches and unstable trees, better to get the tree surgeon in and remove them safely than wait for nature to do it her way, for she will have far less regard for safety or your property. Often, the cost of doing nothing can prove to be higher.

How to prune your wisteria

One of the highlights of the summer garden is wisteria in full bloom. Left to its own devices, it will grow away each year and will produce flowers but regular pruning will control its spread and offer you the opportunity to stop it from interfering with gutters, downpipes, loose masonry and keep it from travelling where you don’t want it to go. During early autumn, prune back side shoots produced during this last year to about five or six nodes or leaves from the main stem. These shoots should be shortened now over the next month to two or three nodes. The result of this work should be a plant which is more controlled and which produces a better floral display next year.

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