June 21 - 22 represents the Winter Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. This is the celestial beginning of Winter. These are our shortest days of the year, and officially usher in the coldest, darkest weather as well. Gardening during this time of year can be very difficult, and while only the hardiest plants and toughest Gardeners usually survive this period without problems, gardening now can sometimes be a pleasure.
In the coldest climates any sort of activity outdoors can actually be chilling if not life-threatening. While in the mildest (sub) tropical climate zones, Winter gardening can be quite comfortable. But no matter what climate zone it is, dress wisely for the season. Firstly, dress warmly in loose fitting Iayers of clothing that allow freedom of movement while trapping body heat between the layers of clothing. If the garden or weather is at all damp, wear gum boots or other water tight shoes.
Adding a layer of mentholated gel or oil rubbed over the feet and lower legs plus around the back of the neck and shoulders as well as around one’s arms and hands not only protects against water-chilling but adds a warming layer of insulation over sensitive skin areas.
Wearing a double pair of socks adds valuable insulation, especially during cold and/or wet weather or if one is standing stationary for any long period of time. Well-fitted thermal underwear can be a real blessing now. Consider wearing a hat.
By far the greatest head and neck protection is achieved with a hooded garment, either a winterized coat or hooded sweatshirt. This traps in body heat especially against the vulnerable back of the neck and head where so much heat can be quickly lost when left exposed.
Body chilling occurs most quickly through wet feet and exposed scalp. Do whatever it takes to avoid this. The Winter-wise Gardener is a warm Gardener. Avoid chilling winds! While mild, sunny afternoons are usually best for doing exposed outdoor work, sometimes a cold, still morning or a day with low clouds but not much wind will be surprisingly warm once you get started.
Keep active, especially at first to get the cardiovascular system pumping. A few minutes of brisk walking or even simple exercising just standing in place will almost immediately warm up your body. When performing vigorous exercise like building, digging, raking, sawing, etc. it is easy to stay warm. But when standing stationary as when potting on bulbs or transplanting seedlings, stop every 15-20 minutes and repeat your exercises to keep that warming blood flowing. Once your body warms to the outside air you have won half the battle and it’s a great way to stay fit over Winter.
The other half of the battle is a conquest over chilling and cold stress that results in disease, infection, freezing, wet and wind-chill related disorders. While there are limits to how many battles the Gardener can win over such extremes, victory is still possible and worth it! The best approach is to remain alert and act sensibly. The best advice is simple: if it starts to hurt, stop! There are parameters that can be stretched here.
Aching muscles often result from overworking one muscle group over another. This is a real problem with many of the repetitive type activities associated with gardening: digging, hoeing, raking; lifting and moving lots of items; potting-on bulbs and seedlings, pruning and sawing; and many other tedious but necessary garden tasks. Be aware of what you are doing and how you are using your body. If one muscle group begins to ache, attempt to do some form of repetitive simple stretching exercise, very similar to a practical yoga exercise that stretches the opposite set of muscles.
For example, if the garden job requires continually bending forward, spend a few minutes repeatedly lifting the arms and body torso stretching upward and back. This will quickly rebalance your central core muscles and the aching should stop. When it doesn’t work, choose an entirely different task using a different set of muscles. If the discomfort continues, perhaps it is time for a break and a warm up indoors.
Extreme wet causes chilling and stress to us as well as to our gardens. It is the cause of many wintery hardships. With common sense and proper attire, it is possible for us to remain dry and warm even on cold, wet and wintry days. But our gardens are exposed to conditions that no Human could withstand for very long. Short of covering the entire garden or affected pots (which many Gardeners eventually elect to do) the best way to counteract this soggy mess is through frequent cultivation of the garden soil.
Cultivation opens land to aeration and the sterilizing ultraviolet rays of warming sunlight. Cultivated soil warms up more quickly than heavy, sodden wet ground. Even if the ground freezes at night, cultivated ground often freezes quickly on the surface. This creates an icy cap that traps in the heat deeper down in the ground thus protecting the sensitive roots. And then in the morning, this more open land thaws faster than heavy wet soil. Just be sure that the cultivated soil is not allowed to pile up deeply against or over the crowns of plants like Primula, Polyanthus; into the hearts of Lettuce, etc. or up against soft and succulent stems as this can cause rotting.
In very cold climates where freezing is a reality, cultivated soil or better still mulch, especially ‘fluffy’ mulches like spoilt hay, straw, sturdy leaves like Magnolia and Oak, course granulated bark, etc. can be banked up around tender stems that might be susceptible to freezing. This provides them with a protective thermal ‘jacket’ that can save valuable plants like perennials and Roses from freezing to death.
Adding drainage material to the soil wherever possible makes a big difference to successful winter gardening in wet climates. If we can remain dry, we also remain much warmer and have far less likelihood of falling victim to stressful wet winter chill. The same logic works with plants. If a plant, especially its’ roots, can remain relatively dry, it can withstand a great deal more chilling than if it is wet. At least up to a certain degree of chilling. In very cold sub-zero climates with very low humidity, further protection is needed to keep plants from becoming ‘freezer-burnt’. This often requires literally wrapping the plants in protective hessian or evergreen boughs.
The best drainage materials used to lighten the soil include: fluffy compost; gravel, especially round river gravel; granulated bark; peat; perlite; sand, vermiculite and many more. These materials lighten the soil allowing freer drainage and better air circulation deep down into the earth. The plant’s root system in then protected in a warming blanket of earth instead of a cold, dense wet blanket. Or even worse a smothering wet clay blanket that will literally chill and drown roots at the same time.
In very sodden and wet land, consider laying drainage tiles or digging a small ditch next to a particularly wet garden. This will drain off the excess water very quickly. In heavy clay or loam soils, a heavy dusting of Gypsum Lime spread over the land is an excellent way of improving drainage. This is one of those amazing chemical elements that won’t perform its magic overnight, but with patience, it will happen. Gypsum Lime is ideal for broader garden beds, lawns and vegetable patches where water tends to stand for any length of time.
Or whenever the garden site doesn’t suit the application of Gypsum, it may be possible to simply dig out the garden plants; add a layer of lighter garden soil or gravel over the existing bed and replant them to the new raised level. Because most plants are dormant or in slow growth during the colder months of the year, they can be moved now and replanted with little if any damage (the exception being tropicals).
Persistent humid and chilling wet weather brings fungus and rots plus associated disease infections which do most of the dirty work. This unfortunate reality is just a fact of life much like Winter colds and flu are to Humankind. The wise Gardener is often the healthiest Gardener because they act sensibly by remaining in flow with the seasonal changes that surround them. And they do the same with their gardens. Outside work is confined to milder weather while inclement weather is the time to complete jobs under cover or occasionally venture out in the storm to get a first-hand view of how the garden landscape copes with a weather crisis.
Hygiene is equally important. Keep the garden clean of random leaves, dead foliage and immediately remove any showing signs of disease. Spray regularly with a powdered Copper spray, dust with Lime or use a commercial fungal spray at the first sign of something that is likely to become unmanageable if allowed to spread.
Remember that prevention beats cure. Plants will be permanently set back once they become diseased so spray them before they get sick. Gardeners usually remain healthier when they are well-fed and remain strong. Many people take vitamins to boost their resistance and strength. Plants are much the same. By adding regular fertilising to the Winter garden routine, plants will definitely remain healthier, stronger and the overall result will be much more successful.
Many Gardeners elect to combine a foliar liquid fertiliser with a regular fungal spray. This will protect the garden from fungal attack and foliar feed the garden for better health. Plus regular foliar or granular fertiliser feeding adds valuable mineral salts into the plant sap. The salts somewhat lower the freezing point of water within the sap which actually helps to protect plants from freezing damage. Chemical foliar feeding can be very beneficial in borderline climates where an advanced and maturing Winter orchard or vegetable crop or floral display might be potentially ruined by a rouge freeze or frost. Best results come when the plants have at least 8-12 hours to thoroughly absorb the mineral salts prior to the temperatures dipping below freezing.
The other more obvious and traditional approach is covering cold sensitive plants with evergreen boughs, old bed sheets, newspaper, plastic and lately with special frost cloth that can actually be left in place for extended periods of time without damaging most crops or plantings. This will usually prevent frost damage down to 5-10 degrees of frost, provided this is not sustained freezing over a long period.
Another method frequently used today in commercial gardens and orchards is setting sprinkler systems to broadcast water over their crops just before the temperatures dip below freezing. The watery spray instantly freezes on contact with the plant’s branches and foliage. As water freezes, it releases heat which is absorbed into the foliage. The ice layer insulates the plant from falling temperatures. This maintains the plant right at the freezing point but no lower. So if the freezing is not too prolonged or persistent, crops are often insulated just enough by their icy coating that they emerge virtually untouched following the freeze.
The brave, dedicated and hardy home Gardener can also do a very similar thing with equally successful results at home. An alternate and potentially equally chilling approach is to hose the frozen plants with water before the early morning sun turns the ice crystals into magnifying glasses within the leaf. When the frost is not too extreme, water within the plant and on the leaves first freezes as shards that can penetrate through the cell walls of the leaf.
Once the sun magnifies these crystal ice shards, the cell damage is so profound that the leaf collapses and perishes i.e. a ‘black’ frost because that is all that is left of tender garden plants. But if the icy shards can be melted before they are magnified by sunlight and before they can expand within the leaf to such a great extent that the leaf’s cell structure is destroyed, often the plants can be saved from a light freeze. The chilled Gardener might need a little extra warming up after a few early mornings of icy washing!
For Gardeners in borderline ‘winterless’ climates, it is best to take no chances. Move all tender treasured plants to shelter now and avert a potential crisis and panic if a cold snap arrives unannounced. Remember that cold winds and even subtle chilling drafts can kill like freezing temperatures. Shelter everything from drafts even when placed inside or in the glasshouse or sunroom.
When in doubt about a suspected invisible draft, use the ‘wet hand’ trick. Just dampen your hand and pass it slowly around the plant. If it feels significantly colder in any direction, that indicates a potential draft. Move your hand in the direction of the cold to identify its source. Then do whatever is necessary to block the draft. Also remember that drafts change just like the weather. So if a plant appears to be suffering make the effort to try the wet hand trick on the worst wintry days rather than the best ones.
Otherwise consider double potting the plant in direct line with any suspected draft. Double potting is simply placing the tender plant inside a larger protective pot. This acts like a layer of insulation. To make it warmer, fill the internal space between the two pots with granulated bark, peat, potting soil, sand, shredded paper, etc.
Outside, temporary shelters can be created to protect against wind chill. Consider using hessian or wind cloth stapled or tied to garden stakes to surround tender plants either on their windy side or perhaps right around them and over their tops. An old fashioned way was to create banks of evergreen boughs which offer surprising protection. And at the same time, carefully and securely stake anything subject to persistent or strong winds.
Winter may not be everyone’s favourite season. But the reward for enduring Winter is the return of Spring. Following the Winter Solstice the days will be growing slightly longer every day, even if the temperatures don’t show it yet. So do whatever you can to protect your garden during these colder days so there will be true rewards when the warm days return. And make sure to look after the most treasured one of all, yourself, by staying cozy and warm!
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