There’s nothing quite like the first frost to concentrate a gardener’s thoughts. We all know that it’s imminent and hearing weathermen confirm it is rather like having the sword of Damocles dangling overhead.
Friends inland have had a taste already, but down by the coast I’m still in suspense. At the beginning of last week, we experienced blissful harmony, the horses even complaining of midge bites in the midday sun, but overnight the temperature hovered around 1C. It really is last call for bringing the most tender of plants under cover.
Late-flowering chrysanthemums and outdoor spray types that had not yet flowered, but were heavy with buds have been my priority.
Two weeks ago, the first batch of sprays were transferred successfully into a cold greenhouse border previously occupied by a tomato crop. Lifted with a good root-ball and watered well in, they are now standing tall and just beginning to bloom. The most recent addition will offer continuity for vases, followed by the true late-types at the end of this month.
Any plants with a permanent position in the garden, but not fully hardy, need some form of protection in situ.
Globe artichokes will survive if soil is raked up to cover the crowns. Alternatively, add a layer of straw and secure it with soil. Straw and bracken are also used as insulating agents, held together by sacking wrapped around and tied. This is very effective for tender shrubs facing their first winter in the open.
A young standard form of Ceanothus Concha bought five years ago is thriving, but I believe that’s because it was helped through the first winter with a framework of canes draped in fleece. Not a pretty sight, but it worked.
Next comes the headache of winter storage for plants that must be kept frost-free, under cover.
Intense cold will certainly penetrate the greenhouse without artificial heating or bubble-wrap lining, and the lady of the house will be up in arms if I spoil the conservatory chi by packing in too many unwelcome guests. So, which do we keep, or what can we bear to discard?
For me it begins with 18, three-year-old coffee plants, each in two-litre pots, and extends to regal pelargoniums and modest collections of ornamental pot plants.
One solution is to propagate from stem and leaf cuttings during summer, and once young plants are secured in first pots, discard some of the large parent or stock plants. Five favourites – Begonia rex, penstemon, streptocarpus, chlorophytum and plectranthus, are safeguarded for next year in this way.
Cuttings of these plants, be they leaf, stem or petiole, need adequate warmth, light, moisture and an open medium to root in. If you lack a heated propagating facility with a soil-warming cable, don’t despair, a seed tray with plastic domed top will suffice.
Once filled with cuttings, place it on the windowsill of a warm room. Water them in and replace the top. Condensation will appear inside the dome, droplets of water form and run down to the rooting medium, evaporate and complete the cycle. So the system requires no more water.