Wrapping up plants for winter

This weekend sees the last open day of the season at Exotic Garden and it looks like being a rather cool one, but hopefully with sun and a blue sky.

With our terribly fickle climate, especially over the last few years, it is impossible to predict the weather at this time of year, as some Octobers have been relatively warm, though this year it's definitely going to be on the cold side, but whatever the day brings I will be here to give advice on preparing those tender and not so tender perennials for winter.

I will be tacking cuttings as well as starting to bring all those treasured gems under cover for the winter.

Many, or should I say most gardeners will not have brought all their borderline plants under cover yet – fear not though, just place some horticultural fleece over your cherished plants which will give them around 2C of protection. I have even used old sheets or net curtains in the past, draped over to keep in a little heat as the ground is still relatively warm.

Living in the city of Norwich it doesn't get quite as cold as out in the wilds of Norfolk, so I usually have a few weeks' advantage.

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After the resent freezing winters many of us are now rather wary after losing so many plants such as Cordylines and Phormiums. Even my standard bay tree took an icy bashing last winter which was a surprise as I have never seen such damage in past winters with dead foliage and peeling bark.

Thinking of Phormiums – my oldest plant, a Phormium tenax variegata at around 20 years old and at least 12ft across – sadly had to be removed in the spring as it looked dreadful by late winter, being a mere shadow of its former self. It was quite a job to remove it as it had such an extensive root system! My old specimen was replaced along with several others in late spring which are all now looking absolutely fabulous. This winter, though, for the first time I will be protecting them, something I have never had to do before in the 29 years I have lived here. Like most gardeners I don't want to keep replacing them as they can be rather expensive to say the least, especially in these recessionary times.

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If we are running into a series of cold winters, minimising winter damage is essential and for a small amount of work and a few pounds spent on materials, it will save a lot of money in the long run.

By early November I will be pulling all the foliage up into a point and constructing a simple wigwam of four or five canes tied together at the top then horticultural fleece firmly attached to the structure so it doesn't blow off when winter gales blow their hardest. This will give some freezing wind chill protection and also keep snow from falling into the crowns as well as keeping them dry.

Dry plants are far more cold tolerant than wet ones! Around ten or so years ago I stopped protecting my large clumps of Musa basjoo as most of the winters during that period never fell much below 2-3C and well within their tolerance. The cold winter before last cut mine down to the ground, something that has never happened here before. They nevertheless lived up to their common name 'the root hardy banana' as dozens of new shoots came up with a vengeance along with the older shoots which soon grew back up to around 8ft tall in the summer.

Last winter, with the aid of plantsman extraordinaire Jamie Spooner, all the bananas were wrapped by bending down the foliage from the tops of all the trunks to form a skirt around each one, then bamboo canes were placed around the clumps about 1ft from the stems then horticultural fleece was wrapped around and finally filled up with loose straw to about a one foot above the stem tops.

Over the structure was placed a sheet of plastic firmly secured with waterproof tape to keep out the winter rains. I do not use bubble wrap to protect plants as I have found that it tends to make them sweat on hot days, hence fleece or sacking is preferable as it lets the stems breath and keep dry. This method can be used for any plant that you think will suffer from being frozen solid!

Several people thought I was going rather over the top last autumn, suggesting that the winter before last had been a one-off!

For the few hours' work it took, the result was that all the clumps came through the coldest winter in living memory, rising to huge proportions this year with several stems well over 12ft tall with a similar span.

Many plants reach their greatest size in stature and foliage just before the first hard frosts cut them down, though when it does this is the sign that action has to be taken.

Some enthusiasts prepare plants early by bringing such plants as Cannas in whole or cutting them down before frosts appear. I prefer to wait until frost has cut them down for me, then I have no qualms about cutting off all the top growth and storing the large root systems in slated trays using composted bark in between them, then storing them in a dry frost-free place for the winter months checking occasionally for any mould which must be removed.

Over the next few weeks and hopefully before any really cold weather appears; my good self and a dedicated team of helpers will be bringing in and preparing all those tender exotics for their winter vacation under protection.

My conservatory and polytunnels are now lined with UV stable bubble insulation and all the heaters, thermostats, propagation benches etc checked and ready for the winter, so without further ado as the sun is shining, I'm going to start bringing in my ever-expanding collection of Bromeliads – I'm sure many of them are twice as big as they were last year! This is sadly my last article of the season for this year in the EDP; though I will be back next year when spring arrives with lots of new stories.

Whatever the winter throws at you and your garden – have a good one and stay positive, spring always returns...

•This article was first published on October 22, 2011.

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