Here Comes Ciara! – How To Protect Your Garden From Stormy Weather

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Winter thus far has consisted of a handful of slightly chilly nights with a lot of benign, mild, wet weather in between. The garden is bursting with signs of spring, some of which I have captured to illustrate this post. Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’ is already blooming, at least 2 months earlier than usual. Legions of tulips are emerging from the ground and we are enjoying generous pots of bright blue Iris reticulata and shocking-pink Cyclamen coum.

Here at The Watch House we haven’t suffered any frost, despite cars on the street outside being smothered in rime on several occasions. The walls, trees and buildings that surround the house create a unique and favourable microclimate. Right now, only the most cold-sensitive plants are showing any sign of distress, but there’s a threat equal to frost on the way across the Atlantic – a storm named Ciara.

Batten down the hatches, Ciara’s coming!

Needless to say, the media are beside themselves with glee at the prospect of major travel disruption, danger to life, widespread power cuts and coastal flooding. A violent storm is a gift for journalists because they can feel gratified if the forecast is correct and blame the Met Office if their predictions don’t come to pass. And we all recall what understatement did for Michael Fish’s reputation in 1987 ….

The Great Storm of 1987 caused substantial damage over much of England, felling an estimated 15 million trees.

Before Storm Ciara makes landfall, here are some sensible precautions that all gardeners can take when strong winds are predicted.

1. Batten Down the Hatches

Ensure anything loose or moveable is weighted down or brought inside. Serious damage can be caused by objects that were not designed to fly through the air, including garden tools, hose reels, dustbins, play equipment and garden furniture. Put vulnerable items in a shed or garage if you can, otherwise move them to a sheltered spot. Barbecue and furniture covers can be ripped off and deposited some distance away, so secure these with bungee cords or remove them temporarily. Trampolines can cause significant disruption if blown onto roads or railway lines.

A wayward trampoline blocking the main London line at Bickley, Kent

Similarly, cloches, fleece and other forms of winter plant protection can be torn from the plants they were there to protect, so pin or tie these down as best you can.

Make sure larger pots are well watered and moved away from windows. Smaller pots and delicate plants should be relocated to a place of shelter.

High winds can topple pots of any size, so bunch these together and ensure they are well-watered before the storm hits. Move anything that might topple away from glass windows and doors, including greenhouses and conservatories. Window boxes and hanging baskets should be removed and placed on the ground where they cannot fall on anyone. If in doubt, move it: the aggravation and distress caused by broken glass or smashed terracotta is not worth the gamble.

If you have a pond, cover it with netting or chicken wire to prevent detritus from blowing in. During the winter months organic material does not break down as fast as in summer, resulting in a build up of toxic ammonia and making the pond water too acidic. Heavy rain will go some way to diluting any toxins, but the problem is best avoided in the first place.

Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’ is flowering now, but this rambler is no great lover of strong winds or cold weather. The whole plant could be stripped of leaves by Storm Ciara

2. Make Good and Mend

Check your shed roof for for missing felt and patch up where possible. If your garden fence has any loose panels, secure these immediately with screws or nails: there’s nothing worse than having a whole border annihilated by 6ft square of treated softwood. Make sure shed doors and greenhouse windows are firmly closed.

The tree on the left, Lyonothamnus floribundus subsp. aspleniifolius, was sadly toppled by a gale last March. This is one of the hazards of gardening by the coast.
(photograph: Marianne Majerus)

3. Keep Thin and Flexible

It has been a long time since these two words were applied to my good self, but they are wise to observe when it comes to one’s garden. During the winter months many trees have open canopies where foliage has fallen. Evergreens are most susceptible to winter storm damage, so thin crowns if at all possible and remove any branches that are touching property – when flailing about in a storm they can easily break glass, rip off a gutter or crush a car. Shrubs and trees in exposed locations should be staked temporarily using ties which have a degree of flexibility. Don’t secure a trunk so firmly that it cannot bend slightly in the wind – there is a possibility it will simply snap.

If you have not pruned roses, buddleja, abutilons or lavateras yet, do so tomorrow. Wind rock can be extremely damaging to these plants as well as any trees and shrubs you’ve planted in the last few months. The less material above ground the safer these plants will be.

Geranium maderense prefers shelter, but is more tolerant of wind than of cold.

4. Safety First

Last but not least, once Ciara or any other storm has set in, do not attempt to rescue a situation unless it is 100% safe to do so. Your neighbours may not be as diligent as you, meaning airborne debris could come at you from any angle, including above. On more than one occasion I have chosen to attempt saving a precious tree from falling and can attest to the invincible force of strong wind hitting a dense canopy. Unless you are Giant Haystacks it’s not worth taking the risk.

If you are determined to venture out this Sunday or Monday, keep in mind that many gardens, parks and arboreta usually open to the public will remain closed if there is danger of injury through falling trees or branches. My advice is to stay indoors, snuggle up on the sofa and enjoy a good book or blockbuster film until Ciara has blown herself out. TFG.

The emerging shoots of Dracunculus vulgaris, the dragon arum, should be fairly safe in a storm, provided nothing falls on them.