This year has seen one of the nicest autumns for a long time. The variety and warmth of the autumn colours, as the leaves were changing, has been most impressive and as there were no harsh frosts or prolonged periods of rain, the leaves hung on for ages, giving us the most kaleidoscopic effect. The lack of frosts has also meant that many of the late flowering plants have both continued to give us pleasure and provide food for bees and butterflies; it has given me great joy to watch them collecting nectar from the highly perfumed Ivy and Mahonia flowers in the autumn sunshine.
The long, warm autumn, however, seems to have finally ended this morning and the first signs of winter can be seen all around us with the light covering of snow. At this time of year, early snow and sharp frosts can make the garden look quite magical. For example, the sharp contrast of the yellow Mahonia against the whiteness of the snow can be dazzling and if you are lucky enough to have spider webs in your garden, the frost can make their intricate shapes really stand out.
Apart from making our surroundings appear attractive, frost can be extremely good for our gardens. Deciduous fruit trees benefit from winter chilling, and cold snaps turn starches to sugar in crops such as parsnips and Brussel sprouts, improving their flavour. Frosts can also disrupt pest and disease cycles and reduce the dreaded slug numbers. Soil structure also improves from a bout of freezing weather– when moisture within soil freezes, it expands and splits open soil particles; this is exceptionally beneficial if you have heavy clay soil. Our native fruit trees require a certain amount of winter cold to enable good bud break in the spring and some seeds will germinate much better if the frost has weakened their hard shells.
However, frost and snow can also do much damage in the garden, so it’s important to ensure that tender plants are either put undercover or wrapped with fleece and raised off the freezing ground to stop the roots from freezing in standing water. Snow must be knocked off trees and shrubs to prevent branches from breaking off and don’t forget to wrap outside taps and pipes.
By Kathy Fairweather