The Beast Is Back

Reading time 9 minutes

Our garden is not designed for snow. In the fifteen years I’ve lived at The Watch House, I can only recall it snowing four times. The first occasion was during the build in 2008, when it snowed in April. This struck me as unusual. Perhaps it was a sign that I should choose my plants wisely? Like hell I would! The second time was some years later, before I’d been totally seduced by exotics. I recall trudging to the station to start a long journey to Birmingham, but nothing about the state of the garden. In 2018 The Beast from the East delivered a third ‘snow event’. Storm Emma was characterised by three weeks of biting winds and subzero temperatures, like nothing I’d experienced before. Freezing weather returned a few weeks later, seeing off any plant that might have been clinging on for dear life. Extensive damage was done, although most survivors recovered rapidly. Whilst I was devastated at the loss of treasured plants, my strongest recollection is the wind, battering the front of the house, finding ways through every door and window, coming down the chimney and up through the floorboards. Fast forward three years, and in February 2021, we are being subjected to a sequel – The Beast from the East II. Borne on the winds of Storm Darcy, freezing weather has continued throughout the week, getting progressively colder. As I write it’s -3ºC, and by midnight it will be -5ºC. In the majority of gardens this would be tolerable. In ours, it is not.

We are not alone in suffering the ill effects of cold weather this week. Indeed we may have come off rather lightly. On Wednesday in Braemar, Scotland, the UK’s coldest temperature since 1995 was recorded, the lowest February temperature since 1955: the temperature dipped to -23ºC. All across Northern Europe gardeners have been experiencing unusually cold, snowy weather coming from Russia and Scandinavia. It will only be good news for the nurserymen, who will enjoy a bumper spring once we start to replace our losses.

Warm light from the library offers no comfort for my poor, frozen plants.

Our garden’s vulnerability is entirely my fault, since I have chosen to grow plants that are unaccustomed to cold and snow. Some tender plants shrug it off, many tolerate it, but a few absolutely can’t survive it. My signature plant, Geranium maderense, is in that last category. It will take a minuscule amount of freezing weather, provided it’s short and sharp. The leaves will go limp at the tips and the plant will never look lovely again, but it will go on to flower successfully. However, when the cold is prolonged and there’s snow freezing on to leaves and stems, the plant’s delicate tissue is damaged irreparably. In my experience, the plant will die slowly once temperatures rise, the rot setting in as the fragile cells defrost. There may be no Barbie-pink flowers this year, or next, but seedlings will appear in a matter of weeks and we’ll have fresh foliage by summer.

The day before the freeze, we decided to move Entelea arborescens into the workshop – a good job we did too!

80% of our tender plants found shelter in the workshop, where they’ll huddle together in half-darkness until it’s safe to go outside again. A small oil-filled radiator keeps frost at bay, but that’s enough. Compared to almost every plant we left outside, those in the workshop remain in rude health. Of those that were literally frozen out, it will be educational to see what survives – at least that’s what I keep telling myself. Isoplexis sceptrum (sceptre foxglove), Correa ‘Marian’s Marvel’, Sparmannia africana ‘Flore Pleno’ (African hemp), Eriobotyra deflexa (bronze loquat), Lonicera hildebrandiana (giant Burmese honeysuckle) and Saurauria subspinosa (a Burmese tree without a common name that I am aware of) are all too large or too heavy to bring inside, so they had to take their chances. I don’t want to speak too soon, but they all appear to have survived thus far. Unfortunately Telanthophora grandiflora (giant groundsel) and Solanum laciniatum (kangaroo apple) look rather hopeless. New plants will be grown from seed if they die.

The Jungle Garden from the top floor of The Watch House on day one of the cold snap.

I was bereft following the first Beast from The East. I was convinced the garden would never be the same again ….. and it wasn’t: even now my troughs of Agapanthus africanus have not re-established themselves, and this current cold snap might spell the end for them. There were tough decisions made for me, ones I would never have made for myself. Spaces were opened up and new planting opportunities revealed. I learned what was hardy in my garden and what was not. I studied the subtle yet surprising difference in survival rates between plants in the Jungle Garden (facing east) and the Gin & Tonic Garden (facing west). The garden was horribly ugly for a couple of months, then spring bulbs emerged and the worst was forgotten. Nature abhors a vacuum: aided by my general enthusiasm for plant purchasing, her actions were only hastened.

The Beast may be back, but it will not prevail. Although I have not cared to look too closely at any plant, I am sanguine about the situation. When it’s cold and snowy for this long, nothing one does is going to make a whole heap of difference unless one has a heated greenhouse, which I do not. What’s more frustrating is not being able to get out. The condition of the roads and pavements means that even a walk to the allotment involves dicing with death. The very moment the thaw begins I will be out there, plotting and planning. The Beast from the East may have kept winter alive, but spring is waiting just around the corner. She will soon be strong enough to fill our gardens with new hope and bright flowers. TFG.

The ghostly, sheet-covered form of Isoplexis sceptrum one night this week.

Categories: Our Coastal Garden, Tropical Gardens, Weather

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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21 comments On "The Beast Is Back"

  1. I feel for you. It dropped to -10.2 outside my Polytunnel yesterday morning, I doubt any of my cuttings will survive that never mind established plants such as Amelia thus, I lay in bed listening to the N. East wind blasting the garden last night but he-ho…..opportunities..

    1. Yikes! That’s chilly!!! The wind is what drives me to distraction. It’s still howling now, and making it very challenging to light a fire. When it comes from a north easterly direction the front of our house is about as effective as a sieve when it comes to keeping the cold out.

      I do hope you have some survivors. Dan

  2. Your optimism is fantastic! Looking forward to seeing the beauty you nurture through plants this year!

  3. It sounds like you will be able to nearly replace what is outside. What a daunting task. I admire your positive attitude toward a ferocious Beast. We are having much the same weather. Only my garden is geared for such cold. There may be a couple of casualties but it will be minor. We are lucky to have snow cover this year. That is a rarity that it appears when you need it.

  4. Oh heavens! I can’t imagine the stress/anxiety/fear for your garden. Mine is built for this (as it was -14F this morning) and we’ve had snow for 3 months, but your poor babies! Sending sunshine and warm weather your way and hopes for quick bounce backs on as many of your plants as possible- and you two stay warm!!!

    1. Thank you Cortney. Never fear, we will bounce back. The benefit of experience is that one can judge quite quickly how bad things are, and they are not terminal. Next week is due to be a complete contrast, with unseasonably warm weather. We’re both looking forward to getting onto the allotment and making some progress there. Dan

  5. I can so feel with you.
    We have up to -17C here in Frankonia, Central Germany. It’s a winegrowing area, so usually never that cold.
    I try to not even look out of the window, to see more Cordyline or Phormium dying. The last few winters they were ok.

    Thanks for giving hope….yes, spring is around the corner. In my head I make new plans for the areas were lots of plants will have died.

    I wonder about the wineyards….will have to pop into one of the winegrowers to find out how they are doing….I got rather accustomed to the fantastic wine here.

    Greetings from Würzburg

    1. -17ºC, that is harsh Andreas! It seems as if we are all suffering to a degree. During the last Beast from the East I noticed that many phormiums died in the UK, but not cordylines. I wonder if cordylines are less prone to damage being higher off the ground? Here in the UK they seem as tough as old boots, but one mostly sees them in coastal areas.

      I did not think cold weather was too much of an issue for vines provided they were dormant. Once the buds break, I know that any kind of cold weather is a nightmare. One year I visited Tuscany after they’d experienced frost in May and lower-lying areas were devastated. German wine is highly underrated in the UK – it’s not often found in mainstream retail. However I am very fond of it, especially Gewürztraminer.

      Warmest Greetings from Baltic Broadstairs. Dan

  6. Look at the beauty of your collection of pots, the arrangement now enhanced by the light covering of snow! It hasn’t been as cold here and we don’t grow as many of the tender range of plants as you do – being reconciled no not being able to keep them going in our garden over the winter. We fill two glasshouses with those plants which merit winter protection and allow nature have its way with the rest. At this stage, almost everything in the open garden will be fine as we have allowed our conditions to guide our selections.

    Hey, I ran the lawnmower yesterday, just around the grass verges and I trimmed the edges with a strimmer! So, we are on the cusp of the new season!

    1. Good for you Paddy. You’d not have got far with a lawnmower here as much of the turf is either covered in ice or churned up where it’s melted. We’ve not ventured as far as the allotment yet as that will be a quagmire. Am hoping my purple sprouting broccoli is still upright.

      The pots did look rather novel topped with snow, like little soufflés. The bulbs beneath won’t be in the least troubled by the cold and will hopefully look fabulous in a couple of months’ time.

      Enjoy the rest of the weekend. Dan

  7. I absolutely love LOVE your website!!!!! Watched Gardner’s World episode featuring your garden like a million times :-))))) Well done and good luck from myself- a fellow gardner :-)))))

    1. That’s wonderful, thank you. I am doing lots of work on the website behind the scenes at the moment. Posting when I can but also updating the main pages. It’s always nice to get feedback.

      If you saw my garden now you would not recognise it from Gardeners’ World. We have five months of hard graft to get it back up to scratch again after the cold weather. New beginnings and all that! X

  8. Its always dangerous pushing limits but look at the amazing results you get from your garden.

    Most of my G.maderense are in a tunnel but that went down to – 5.7c in central Kent last night. I had covered them with cardboard so I still live in hope.
    The self sowers in the garden had been fairing well especially a two year old plant growing in a bit of a wind alley but there is now a very unpromising low snow mound where it stood.

    Good luck!

    1. Hmmm, that does not sound promising. If they survive -5.7°C then you are doing well. Thankfully they grow like cress from seed so we can always begin again. The curse here has been the incessant, freezing cold wind which has finished what the snow started. The cold alone might have been OK, but the wind dries the plants out and snaps the stems. Walking around Broadstairs today there’s not a single plant that’s looking happy, so I am not alone. Fingers crossed for you! Dan

      1. If I do loose them its all my own fault as with a bit of shifting about I could have given at least some of them more protection but last year those that had it too easy seemed to be weaker in spring.
        We all live and learn!

        I forgot to thank you and Paddy Tobbin, thanks to your endorsement of Windcliff I bought it read it, loved it.
        One of those reads I didn’t want to end.

      2. Yes, excellent isn’t it? Very inspiring. I am a little bit obsessed by American and Australian gardeners at the moment. They feel very progressive and bit less stuffy than British ones. I am currently reading ‘Uprooted’ by Page Dickey and that’s jolly good so far. It describes a wrench that I know is coming for me at some stage in the future. Dan

    2. My two G maderense , grown from seed planted 2017 in my East Lothian garden, lost 80% of their foliage, despite wrapping of straw and bubble wrap. I removed the dead growth and the crown foliage seems (!) to be recovering, if they don’t rot.
      Neither has ever flowered. I had hoped this would be the year.
      Is it feasible to grow Gm from root cuttings? I’m tempted to try as 4 years is a long time to wait if I have to try again from scratch.

      1. Hi Alastair. Snap. Mine lost 80% of their foliage too, but the centres are sound and regrowing nicely now. I can see flower clusters forming underneath the emerging foliage. This might be the year for you, as it’s unusual for them to take so long to flower. I don’t believe you can grow new plants from root cuttings. You may get lucky and have some offshoots close to the base that will go on to flower the following year, otherwise, the fastest way is to start again with seed or buy plants from a nursery – there are a few in Cornwall that offer them for sale.

  9. I totally get it. I grow plants that I bring back from the Los Angeles region. Many do surprisingly well here, and a few really should be more popular here than they are. Of course, some need shelter. A few are houseplants. There is no snow here, but we sometimes get mild frost.

  10. I sympathise from South Norfolk. I’ve just stood on my garden pond as the ice is so hard and thick! Still have a few dots of colour poking through with iris and anemones frozen in time…

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