Winter warmers

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The first frosts have been and gone, but most plants will be just about hardy enough to have survived. However, it’s a warning for the gardener – time to protect the vulnerable before things gets worse and winter really bites.

For some, it’s relatively easy – use your own home-made compost to protect the roots of those plants that are only borderline hardy. This means plants like agapanthus, bottle brush plant (callistemen), pittosporum and cordyline, which stand a much better chance of survival if they are given some extra protection.

Place an insulating layer of compost over the root area of these plants and tie up the strap-like leaves of the cordyline with twine to reduce the amount of rainwater that gathers where leaves join the stem.

If the plant is in a pot that’s small enough to be accommodated in an unheated greenhouse or even a conservatory, it may pay to bring it indoors and keep it there over the winter. If it’s looking a bit under the weather, repot it with fresh compost to see it through till next spring.

With really tender shrubs, construct a cage around them. Make it with chicken wire and pack it with dry moss or even newspaper. Top off the cage with a water-proof piece of plastic that will keep off most of the winter rain.

The result may not look very pretty but it could be the difference between life and death for a treasured plant.

Some plants will survive with just the occasional act of kindness – if the weather forecast is for frost, wrap them overnight in newspaper or horticultural fleece. When – and if – things warm up the following morning, uncover them until the next frost warning.

Container-grown plants are always vulnerable during winter, but the simple act of placing them in a sheltered, warm spot by a south-facing wall is often sufficient to see many through unharmed.

As an added precaution, lift the pots off the ground (you can buy small terracotta feet or just use small stones) to encourage better drainage and thus prevent sodden compost from freezing around the rootball. Even with the best tender living care, some plants will die. If a really treasured but tender specimen survives through till 2013, take cuttings next year. Think of it as an insurance policy.