We are now well into that time of the year when keen gardeners listen attentively to broadcast weather forecasts.
Most of them hoping not to hear the dread words, “Ground frost will be widespread, with lows of around minus five or minus six – and that’s in towns and cities; it will be several degrees colder than that in many rural districts, especially in the north-east.” And if these words are spoken, it’s time to wrap up warm and venture out into the growing darkness to make sure that the greenhouse windows and ventilators are closed, the heating on and that none of the plants over-wintering there are touching the glazing. Then it’s time to make sure that any outdoor plants being protected by fleece are indeed being protected by their wrapping and have not wriggled out of their blankets. And finally, as the chill starts to penetrate the gardener’s clothing, it’s as well to check that any ceramic pots being over-wintered outdoors are in as sheltered a spot as possible, preferably close to the house and protected from rain to prevent them from becoming thoroughly wet before freezing conditions cause cracks and splits to appear.
Some years ago, I was part of a jolly company of horticultural enthusiasts enjoying a coach tour of the Highlands, one element of which was a visit to a privately-owned garden on the north shore of Loch Ness. There … and I regret to say that I have forgotten both the name of the garden and the name of its owner … we were shown an exciting collection of exotic plants from much warmer climes than ours; and, in response to the obvious question, “What do you do when winter comes?” the proprietor said, “I leave them where they are.” We gazed at him incredulously. “Oh yes,” he expanded, “These plants are entirely protected from the north-east wind here; and that lets them survive temperatures of well below freezing.”
I think that I speak for all my touring colleagues when I say that we were surprised to hear a retired meteorologist … for such had been the garden owner’s profession … assure us that the north-east wind poses a very much greater threat to tender plants than does the frost. But, unless our host was a shameless liar, there was the living proof of his statement growing happily in the Inverness-shire soil before our very eyes.
We all know that strong winds damage plants. Anything above a gentle breeze will destroy the likes of gladioli when they are in flower; a wind of force 5 or 6 on the Beaufort scale will snap the blooms off tuberous begonias; come a severe gale … force 9 on the Beaufort scale … and the branches of trees are threatened; and if the wind rises to force 11 … a violent storm … then we can expect mature trees to be uprooted. So gardeners stake their gladioli and many other tall plants; they grow their begonias and other prized blooms in the most sheltered spots in the garden; they check the branches of trees for any signs of weakness; and, if they have any sense, they don’t grow tall trees anywhere within reach of the house in the event that they are toppled, although this latter may be a difficult aim to achieve if the neighbours do not have similar foresight.
What gardeners seldom do is to consider whether wind or frost is the greater threat to the garden’s well-being during the winter months; frost would be the usual answer. Yet, while frost does indeed pose a problem to the keen gardener’s carefully-tended plants and he or she would be a fool to ignore this threat, the biting, bitter wind that can sweep across the country from the north-east, carrying harsh reminders of the severity of winters in the more northerly areas of Scandinavia and Russia, may well be the gardener’s greatest enemy.