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How did you cope with really cold winters in the past

Hello long-time gardeners,

I would be grateful for any advice how you coped in the past with really cold winters and what you learned from these winters and did better the next time. Did your garden literally die under the frost and snow?

Being originally from Berlin, I remember the really cold winters which appeared every 10 years in average, some came earlier, other took more time. My first really cold winter was 1978/79. We had minus 27 degrees Celsius for 12 days and in February, the snow was 1,5 meters high for 4 weeks. In 1985/86, we had minus 30 degrees Celsius for 3 weeks, followed by cosy minus 16 degrees Celsius for another 3 weeks. In 1995/96, we had a minus 15 degrees Celsius for a time from November up to April.  The next cold winter was in 2009, I was already here in the UK, but I had no garden.
Since 2015, I have a garden for the first time and have appreciated the warm winters that we have here in the UK.

We are overdue with a really cold winter that will break "bone and stone" as we call it in Germany, and I expect to happen that in the next weeks. The German weather service also expects a long lasting "beast from the east" starting in November for at least 8 weeks if not longer. In my (Berlin) experience, if the cold starts in November, then it will end in April.
When the Polar vortex broke in December 2020, the forecast says that if that happened, then in 18 out of 20 years, the Polar vortex broke in the second year too.

What I love with my garden is that I get a chance to study the plants. I keep records of what happened when and try to figure out what nature tells me. My first assumption to take neighbour's cherry tree as signal for a pattern doesn't seem to be reliable. The blossoms came out in April, March, April, March, and I thought this is how it works, but then in 2020, they came out in February which was unusual. We had this strange weather pattern in February/March 2020 when a storm with rain turned up just Fridays afternoon and ended  Sundays late afternoon with the sun out again. That pattern repeated several times since then.
Last year, my gladioli flowered the first time in late October up to the end of November. Normally, they start to show up at the beginning of August. My niece in Berlin wrote to me that also her gladioli came out exceptional in November. With our cold winter extension April/May this year, I now wonder if the gladioli told me in November last year that the winter will end 7 months later. And as I already mentioned in April here in the forum, my tomato seeds told me in February that's not going to work this year. They never needed 14 days to show up and half of them even didn't make it.

I have taken out the tree fern and Acer and have them now in barrel pots so that I can take them into the house to protect them. Despite best attempts, the tree fern died with the April/May frost, but there are 5 new leaves coming on the side. The Acer lost all its leaves and partly froze, but it has come back.

Did you cover plants like Salvia, Echinacea, Hot Poker in these cold winters? I bought some plants like Caryopteris, Euphobia, Linaria Purpurea, Deutzia, a Hebe.

You can see what I'm driving at. I'm not talking about the usual -4 degrees Celsius here in the South of England for 2 weeks and that's all, but I'm talking about a real breaker.

Many thanks in advance.

I my garden.



  • Hostafan1Hostafan1 Posts: 34,743
    I just leave everything except evergreen agapanthus and dahlias and bananas which come into the polytunnel. Everything else has to cope

  • My family …. many generations of farmers … always said ‘if there’s ice in November to bear a duck, nothing will follow but mud and muck’. 

    Panic not … and don’t read the Daily Express 😂 

    Gardening in Central Norfolk on improved gritty moraine over chalk ... free-draining.

  • FairygirlFairygirl Posts: 54,353
    I suppose it's just what you get used to. I've never known anything different to the conditions I have here, so I plant accordingly. We know it'll be cold in winter - the amount of snow can vary, but we know it'll be very wet, icy, frosty and sleety in varying amounts, and winters last longer than those in the south, so we can plan accordingly. It doesn't stop me experimenting now and again with plants that are borderline for my conditions, even if it doesn't always work.  ;)
    I think it's difficult to make comparisons with the climate and weather you had previously @Simone_in_Wiltshire. You can really only do what you're doing, and keep your journals etc to see if there are significant changes which will then affect what you have in your garden. If you see/feel a change, you can then alter what you do a little bit, and you can experiment now and again as well  :)
    I know our weather has been different in the last few years here, and further north. Whether that remains a permanent change, or is just a blip, is impossible to judge. If the climate keeps altering drastically in the next decade, I'll have to rethink what I do, and plant/grow, but I'll cross that bridge if and when it comes. 
    It's a place where beautiful isn't enough of a word....

    I live in west central Scotland - not where that photo is...
  • My garden is above 400m altitude and exposed to winds from both east and west. In over 30 years here, we've become used to low temperatures, regularly reach -12C, once for a fortnight, ice, snow, sometimes heavy and a lot of rain.
    We prepare for this by stocking the larders and buying in extra supplies for our animals and ourselves, including extras such as long-life and powdered milk, candles, matches and batteries for those times when we are unable to reach the outside world because of snowdrifts or the power goes off. As long as you are prepared there is nothing to fear and I enjoyed the feeling of combating the weather, taking hay bales to the sheep on a sledge and then having fun on it myself, as well as the sometimes spectacular scenery. Spring may have come late, but the majority of plants here survived.
    What has been far more damaging has been the unpredictability of the the last 2 years. In 2020 I was gardening in February without a coat, and the warm spring brought everything on early and then blasted them with a single frost at the end of May.
    This year has been so contrary - March warm, not cold, April cool, but very dry, May high daytime temps and frosty nights but also wet. There was one night of freezing rain that caused several trees to lose branches because of the weight of ice. I have lost more plants this year than ever before, including some that had been here for years and survived the 'Beast from the East'.  Replacing them has been hard, because the conditions were wrong for seeding or planting out and things have grown slowly because of low temps or dry conditions. Once things finally got growing they have  mostly done well, but the weeds even more so, and there have been many posts on this forum about similar problems.
    I have no idea what this coming winter will be like and all I can do is take the usual precautions and have as many water butts filled as possible. I will set up my propagator indoors as ever and start things as early as I realistically can to give additional growing time. It was my first attempt at sweetcorn and the good news is that it will grow here, but it has only just reached tassel stage and clearly needed sowing at least 2 months earlier, which would make planting out even more of a lottery than usual. Mine went out in June like Monty's!

  • JennyJJennyJ Posts: 10,118
    I was surprised by what did survive our last prolonged cold winter spell (2009-10) - including Salvia patens in pots.  But that year the cold spell started with heavy snowfall on the last day of November so the blanket of snow will have insulated the plants underneath from the very cold weather that we had for the following month or so. Late spring frosts (May, occasionally June) seem to do much more damage than winter cold when many plants are already dormant, and freezing of wet ground after heavy rain is worse than freezing but dry in terms of plant damage.
    As to what we'll get this winter, it's anyone's guess. The UK climate is more variable and less predictable than continental Europe (such as Berlin) because we have the Atlantic influence as well as polar and continental.
    Doncaster, South Yorkshire. Soil type: sandy, well-drained
  • FairygirlFairygirl Posts: 54,353
    You're right @JennyJ - it's the cold wet that does for more plants than cold dry conditions.  :)
    As a newish gardener many, many years ago, I couldn't understand why I couldn't get Salvias to survive, until I understood more about the soil, climate and weather differences. Even picking the best spot I could find, they couldn't manage without extra protection.  :)
    It's a place where beautiful isn't enough of a word....

    I live in west central Scotland - not where that photo is...
  • JennyJJennyJ Posts: 10,118
    You'll get a lot more of the wet-and-cold than we do @Fairygirl . We usually get dry cold or wet but milder in the winter, and I'm still sometimes surprised by what will survive left outside. Last year it was petunias left out in a hanging basket (tidal wave red velour, which I think is less tender than most, but still).
    Doncaster, South Yorkshire. Soil type: sandy, well-drained
  • FireFire Posts: 18,126
    I wouldn't worry to much. Even the 'very cold winters' are not what they used to be in previous centuries. In the south it might get down to -15oC but not much more, I would say. Forecasters can pretty easily see such weather coming a mile off, and weeks ahead, so there will be time to prepare the garden.
  • SkandiSkandi Posts: 1,721
    we got -18 last year with no snow, I lost my fennel and artichokes, but the bay tree survived. (sheltered spot) What seems to kill more than pure negative numbers is damp and the frost freeze cycle.
  • In England the coldest winter that I remember was 1962/63 where the snow lay for weeks and had drifted eight feet high against some structures, snow a foot deep on rooftops (and that was the days before homes had loft insulation) which eventually slipped down falling to the pavements, the householders shovelled the snow onto the side of the road where it stood like a barrier against the traffic. The park which had valleys but no pond gained a pond for a few weeks as the ground was frozen and then the deep snow thawed and ran down into the valley and then froze, the milk in the school milk bottles froze and pushed its way out in a column of frozen milk. As the snow melted and then froze on the pavements kids made ice slides deadly to the old folk, gutters came adrift from houses and copper pipes froze. All of that in the south midlands not even on high ground or exposed countryside. I do believe that the winter of 1948 was worse though and the country nearly ran out of coal.
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