There’s no denying that autumn has arrived. Falling leaves, freezing plants, cold nights: it’s not July anymore! So it’s time to think about protecting our plants for the winter.
There’s no denying that winter protection is popular in northern climates: conifers wrapped up like mummies and hedges covered in fluorescent-orange snow fences are plentiful on our lots. Yet such protection is rarely necessary, and can even seriously damage the shrubs we’re trying to protect. If you’ve chosen plants that are well adapted to our climate and placed them in suitable locations, they shouldn’t need protection.
Discreet and Wise Protection
The most important thing for any plant is, of course, to protect its roots. This is the most delicate part of the plant, much more so than twigs or needles. People who protect the branches and other aerial parts of their plants, but leave the roots exposed to the cold, run the risk of damaging them anyway. The best winter protection is to cover the roots well with 7 to 10 cm (4 inches) of mulch. You can use purchased mulch or shredded leaves. Shredded leaves won’t blow away and provide excellent winter protection.
For plants a little more prone to winter blight, such as conifers and rhododendrons, it’s doubly important to ensure that their root systems are well protected, as they lose moisture in winter due to their evergreen leaves. This means not only mulching them, but also watering them well throughout the autumn if there’s no rain, until the ground freezes.
For shrubs or conifers at risk of bending under the weight of snow (especially pyramidal cedars), the first line of defense is to avoid locations subject to rapid snowfall, such as under roof overhangs. If this is not possible, drive a solid, neutral-colored stake into the ground on the least visible side of the plant, and tie the plant to the stake with a solid, inconspicuous wire or transparent netting. Don’t over-tighten! (We see a lot of people damaging their shrubs by trying to “wind them up” too much). Just wrap them gently, that’s all. When it’s done right, you shouldn’t even notice the difference.
Roses: A Special Case?
In the past, it was customary to prune roses in autumn and cover them with a rose cone… but that was back in the days of hybrid tea roses and grandifloras, which were not very hardy. Today, these roses are less and less cultivated, having given way to hardy roses. And the name says it all: a hardy rose is hardy, so it’s resistant to the cold, and doesn’t need winter protection.
Freshly Planted Conifers and Shrubs
The only time winter protection is likely to be useful is on newly planted vegetation. Trees, shrubs and conifers planted in autumn haven’t necessarily had time to root properly before the cold weather arrives. Adding mulch can help them get through the winter, but is not always enough. In this case, it’s a good idea to protect them from the prevailing wind by pricking two stakes on the north-western side of the shrub and attaching a piece of jute or agrotextile.
The fabric must not touch the plant, however, otherwise there’s a danger of burning. Some people prefer to place four stakes around the entire shrub, forming a kind of open-air tube. On the other hand, it’s essential that the plant can breathe at all times and that heat can escape: to this end, never close the top of your protection.
Good winter protection is essentially invisible. It can be easy and discreet, yet effective. It’s all about using a bit of common sense, rather than going for outrageous protection that will ruin the whole landscape.
Larry Hodgson published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in both French and English. His son, Mathieu, has made it his mission to make his father’s writings accessible to the public. This text was originally published in Le Soleil newspaper on November 2, 2003.