The depths of winter can be one of the most demanding times of year for your garden. There are heavy frosts, powerful winds, and potentially torrential precipitation that can wreak havoc on your carefully tended garden. In this article, we’re going to take a look at some of the ways in which you can take preventative measures to ensure that your garden (plants, trees and your lawn more specifically) arrives into spring relatively unscathed.

Plants

Frost is particularly unwelcome for those who enjoy more delicate flowers, but it’s a problem for many different varieties of plant, so most gardeners will need to pay attention to this section. It’s worth noting at this stage that some plants react differently to frosts than others. On the one hand you’ll have annuals that simply cannot withstand a frost at all, and on the other you’ll have root-hardy perennials that may die back as the result of frost, but which will return from the root. Of course, many plants that are suited to the British weather can survive a frost entirely intact, though they generally enter a more dormant state.

There are actually several different types of frost too - it’s a catch-all term that refers to several different freezing symptoms. The most commonly recognisable is hoarfrost, which is the visible ice crystals that often dust a garden, and the result of water vapour in the air. There’s also rime, which is essentially when water freezes onto a plant - this commonly happens from dew or fog. Finally, blackfrost is another one to be aware of - this is when the freezing temperatures themselves cause damage to the structure of a plant.

If it looks like frost is approaching, which doesn’t necessarily happen constantly throughout midwinter, then there are steps that you can take. They include the following:

  • Small planted plants and trees that you know will be vulnerable to frosts can be covered up with a blanket, or if small enough, even a small bucket or plant pot. There are actually sheets that you can buy specifically for this purpose, which might be ideal if you have a cherished fruit tree. Very small shoots can also be covered temporarily with an insulating layer of mulch.

  • If you have potted plants that are at risk from frost and freezing temperatures, then you should bring these inside if you can - it’s more effective than covering them up. Similarly, vulnerable bulbs are better dug up and brought in than left to the elements.

  • Despite water’s propensity to freeze while in the garden, it is actually a very good idea to make sure that everything in it is well-watered. Desiccation can be a problem when the weather is cold but dry, and additional water in the soil and the plant itself can be an insulating factor.

The last bullet point leads us nicely onto the next midwinter risk for plants, which is the wind. Wind scorch in particular is a nasty affliction, which arises as the result of consistently strong winds, low temperatures, and a dry atmosphere. It often affects smaller trees and shrubbery. As the wind moves quickly past the plant’s leaves, it draws moisture from them, and then the dryness of the soil means that this moisture cannot be replaced quickly enough, causing cell death, and ultimately leaves to brown and die. In addition to this, wind can cause physical damage, such as removing leaves, breaking branches and even uprooting smaller plants.

The solution to both of these issues is to attempt to shield your plants from excessive wind. This can be done firstly by being proactive and planting particularly vulnerable plants beside fences, or under the shelter of larger bushes and trees. If you’ve not done this, and can see that some of your shrubbery is taking a beating from the wind, then you can potentially use windbreaks and other similar screenings to make sure that the wind doesn’t fully make it through.

January is the wettest month of the year, which means that waterlogging can sometimes become a problem. When the ground becomes saturated with water, air penetration in the soil is very poor, which leads to anaerobic conditions. This can damage a great many plants that are suited to Britain’s average conditions. Unfortunately, there is little you can do to fix a waterlogged planting area - it’s all about prevention.

It takes some serious rain to waterlog a well thought-out garden, and there are a few different things that you can do. The number one is to make sure that you have good soil structure that allows for drainage of water. This means cultivating the soil before you plant. It can also really help to have planted areas slightly raised above the rest of the garden, which will allow gravity to take care of drainage for you.

If you know that there are some areas of your garden that are problematic, but you still want them to be useable, then you could also install an actual drainage system. This isn’t as complex as it sounds, and involves placing porous pipework deep underneath the soil. This RHS article gives a good overview of how it can be done.

Wind itself is of no concern to grass, but that doesn’t mean it can’t cause problems. High winds can kick up all manner of debris and distribute it over your carefully manicured lawn. If you allow this to happen, there’s a risk that grass can become smothered - good aeration is essential for the healthiest of greenery. Ensure that you keep your lawn well-tended and it’ll be in perfect health come spring.

If your lawn becomes waterlogged, it can unfortunately be ruined fairly quickly, so it’s worth taking some precautions for those heavy January rains. Regular aeration (using an aerator) throughout the year, and decompaction when you’re laying grass seed or turf is your best defence against waterlogging, as this will ensure that water drains away. In extreme scenarios, as previously mentioned, installing drainage is something that you can look at, a particularly if the problem seems to persist. You may also be able to re-level the lawn to better deal with pooling water.

There are a few things that you can do to alleviate the situation if your lawn does become waterlogged. The first is that you absolutely must not walk on a waterlogged lawn, because this will cause further damage to the lawn, and will also compact the soil further, exacerbating the situation. A soft brush can be used to gently try to move away standing water if it’s on top of the lawn. Finally, you do have the option of spreading a very thin layer of garden sand or topsoil over the lawn, which will help to absorb some of the excess water.

Trees

In the plant section, we’ve already covered a few points that are relevant to trees too, but we’re going to take a look at the last few points.

Trees are generally fine with frost, and don’t tend to suffer too much damage. Smaller fruit trees may sometimes need blanketing if they’re susceptible to the cold, but otherwise there are few precautions you need to take. If damage does occur, don’t be tempted to prune it away too quickly - it’s better to assess things in the spring to see if the branch is genuinely dead. People are often surprised that new growth appears on a tree even after taking some apparently nasty winter damage.

December and January generally hold the UK’s wind records, and this can indeed spell bad news for tress, who bear the brunt of it. Good pruning is your first line of defence here - it takes very, very significant winds to damage most trees if they’ve been well kept and don’t have any particular weak spots. Ensure that you’ve pruned unwieldy branches and that the tree is of a good shape and you shouldn’t have any problems. If you have any smaller or younger trees that have potentially vulnerable trunks, then it’s a good idea to use tree stakes and straps to help stabilize them in high winds. Straps can also be used on larger branches.

Wind scorch was referenced in relation to plants, but it is relevant to trees too. When the soil becomes either very dry or waterlogged or even frozen, it’s more difficult for a tree to absorb the moisture that it needs. The high winds then draw moisture from the leaves (particularly evergreens with larger leaves), which isn’t replenished, and you end up with potentially vast swathes of foliage that’s dried out and damaged. It’s next to impossible to shield larger trees from wind, but you can help make sure they get the moisture they need by mulching the area, which can help prevent soil from drying out, and also absorb excess water.

And there you have it - these are our key methods for keeping your garden safe from winds, frost and waterlogging, in what is often the most extreme time of year weather-wise. Typical British weather might mean that next January is fairly dry and mild, but it’s always better to be prepared.