Frosty mornings are upon us. Sharply cold with gloriously blue skies. Slipped from those hot, hot days and nights to this? How does that happen and are you ready? Mostly we can be ready for winter in the garden by planting plants which are frost hardy. But, if you are like me, you occasionally just have to have that plant that is not quite as frost hardy as would be sensible….like the gorgeous white Crowea that I bought from Maria Hitchcock in Armidale. Obviously she also couldn’t resist it as her winters drop to -15 but you can bet that she, like me, has planted it in a spot in her garden where it is protected and perfectly happy. In my garden it is planted under the canopy of the olive tree and overwintered without a hitch last year so I’m expecting the same this winter. The other option of course is to plant such tender darlings in a pot and pop them on a warm north facing veranda.
Mature gardens will always have a variety of microclimates for such fussy plants but new gardens can be a little sparse on such positions. However Anigozanthos (Kangaroo Paws) are perfectly happy nestled up to a large rock which absorbs heat during the day and releases it slowly through the night or close to a fence which gives it protection. My Anigozanthos are just under the edge of the canopy of my stand of Exocarpos trees, facing north so that the sun shines on them all day but the frost can’t reach them at night.
At the nursery we do sell a few plants which are perfectly happy in the coldest nights as long as they have had time to mature a little. Like the Calothamnus quadrifidus green which I have just planted in an exposed spot. Yes I planted it two days before our first frost but I also made a little enclosure for it out of fencing wire with frost cloth over the top so it sits there warm as pie and will be ready for a massive growth spurt in spring. If it is anything like the Calothamnus quadrifidus grey leaf which I planted three years ago, and is now 1 ½ m high, it will have no need for frost cloth after the first winter. Grevillea curviloba subsp incurva is another plant which needs frost protection for the first winter but is then hardy. Such a worthwhile plant as it grows a meter a year. Mine is now 3 ½ meters wide.
Succulents can be extremely frost hardy. The native Carpobrotus is no exception. In the nursery we have Carpobrotus glaucescens with a green green leaf, bright pink flower and a vigorous habit and Carpobrotus rossii with a grey leaf, white flower and a quieter growth habit. However don’t water succulents over winter. They prefer to be less ‘succulent’ when it is frosty so that there is less water to freeze.
Winter is not a time to use fertilisers or prune plants either. Both promote growth and new growth is more liable to be damaged by frost. Save fertilising, if it is needed, for spring and pruning for after flowering and you will be safe.
Healthy, hydrated happy plants with good roots make plants hardier in adverse weather conditions. Spraying or watering with seaweed solution helps strengthen plant cell walls against both extreme cold and extreme heat but don’t water or spray plants after midday as the water on leaves or in the soil can freeze solid and damage the plants. In the past I have made the mistake of leaving plants to dry out in winter. The soil looks damp but most often is not and although plants need less water in winter because they use less in the cold they do still need to be hydrated if they are evergreen. So check down below the soil surface every couple of weeks (especially if the plant is young) and water if needed.
If you do find that a treasured plant has been damaged by frost try giving it a little extra protection for the remainder of the cold season and don’t cut off the damage till risk of frosts is over. The damaged leaves will help to protect the leaves further down the plant.
And no it’s not too late to plant new plants in your garden before winter sets in properly. The ground is still plenty warm enough to put young plant roots into. Notwithstanding that Iris and I both plant all the way through winter anyway. Of course we see what happens to the plants in the nursery on a good frosty morning so we know that what happens in the ground is not going to be near as severe as being in a frozen solid pot up on a bench.
So if you thought I was serious about hibernating by the fire through winter think again. I will be out in all weather tending various gardens round town and coaxing the roots on the cuttings in the nursery to grow, despite the cold, ready for you in spring.
Driving along Tuggeranong Parkway today, past the arboretum, I was marvelling at the rows of trees which, no matter where you stand (or sit if you are driving as I was), are in tight formation, marching like soldiers into the distance (a timely comparison on this ANZAC day) Beautiful order is something I do love. I like to line my plants up in the nursery, like with like, sorted and counted. I used to work in a retail nursery and lining up the plants was always my favourite job after choosing which ones to order. The plants arrival was like Christmas, the gifts came weekly rather than yearly and each week I could unpack and line them up on the shelves. Customers would come like naughty friends to play with my toys but at the end of the day I would get to line them up again. And when I go to market I like to line up my plants then too. I like them to present themselves in an orderly fashion, like good children dressed tidily looking ready for adoption.
Yesterday I was pruning a client’s Westringia bushes into neat ball shapes, that was the brief, and so that’s what I did. Now I do love the look of plants pruned that way but I must admit that as I was pruning them I had to apologise to them for causing them grief. For pruning plants, even the hardiest of natives, into tight balls or hedges, those formal, in control sorts of shapes, is dreadfully hard on them. Conditions around their roots need to be really ideal for them to do well with this sort of treatment and conditions on top not too harsh either especially immediately after pruning.
A formal garden can certainly pander to one’s neat freakishness and control desires and the symmetry and predictability can be soothing to the eye and heart (as long as one doesn’t have to do the pruning…………..though perhaps my eye and heart were soothed but it was my shoulders which were not). However have one mature plant decide to turn up its toes for whatever reason (the horse leaned over the fence and chewed it, or the dogs decided that was the plant to wee on) in that sort of symmetry and it would be enough to turn one pale. One might have to wait years to have that neat row restored to its former glory. Hedging of any plant causes a mass of new growth on the outside of the plant (pruning stimulates growth) and shades the inside branches excessively and the die back is evident through the middle of the plant. I know they say that natives last longer if they are pruned regularly, and that is true, but that does not have to mean hedging type pruning. Selective pruning to maintain a natural looking plant leaves the plant with far more strength to face the day, hot or cold than one that has a tight shell of leaves only on the outside.
Interestingly, although I love my plants to line up and pay attention at the nursery, in the garden I have no such desire. I toyed briefly with the idea of a formal garden when I moved to my current property but I'm glad I resisted. Although my shoulders get a full work out in other people’s gardens, in my own garden they do not have to stand to attention because, more than any desire I might have for control in my life, I love to see my plants flourish just the way they were designed to.
And in my garden I am 'taking stock' too. Which plant needs removing because it is no longer viable…………. wrong place, wrong size, half dead, didn’t perform. And what about those exotics Alison? I say to myself, and out they come one by one as I have new natives to add. In some spots I decided to add numbers of the same thing to provide flow in the garden design. Today it was a swathe of Brachyscome multifida pink to line a path. I have asked myself what needs a little fertiliser before the weather finally gets too cold? and watered it in with a good bucket of water so that my plants can grow fast in this ideal autumn weather. And finally which plants could do with some new mulch while the soil is still warm? (on the to do list still I'm afraid....................maybe next weekend)
Because very shortly it will be time to curl up, tuck away, and view the garden through the windows whilst I read a book by the fire, do some mosaic work or cross stitch and rest while I dream of spring.
Well I have definitely decided that I love shrubbery style gardening. Big blowsy green shrubs which spill over wide paths or nearly occlude narrow ones. Shrubs that hide the path ahead so that one finds unexpected things around the corner. Shrubs which stay green all year round and don’t need much care apart from a kind word or two in passing and a chuck under the chin from time to tome. I love my garden to feel full, replete, overflowing. Of course I don’t have to choose between shrubs or perennials or annuals for that matter because my garden is quite big enough for them all but if I did have to choose I would choose shrubs any day. I wonder when and how that came about. I used to favour show off plants which did a big bang of colour in spring and maybe again in autumn and then disappeared through winter to come up again to delight my overwintered heart. Is it because I am getting weary as I get older? Is it that I feel I need plants around me that don’t need mummying? Is it just that I needed a change? Will I change my mind again? Who knows. What I do know is that this year I have whipped out my beautiful everlasting daisies, Xerochrysum viscosum (somehow I was exhausted by their bedraggled visage at the end of a very hot summer with very little water) and replaced them with a fulsome green leaved Callistemon ‘Rowena’, so fast growing I know I wont need to wait long to have the space filled to overflowing. The Xerochrysum will of course be re-placed around the corner in the orchard so I can enjoy their bright faces next summer but where I look out of my kitchen window every day several times a day I want it to be green, verdantly green, bouncingly green, evergreen, to keep me happy.