No Frost Yet

by Alec McCarter - February 2000

January 5, 2000, and still no killing frost in our garden. Despite El Nina, the frigid sister of El Nino, day-time highs have not yet gone below about 6 degrees Celsius, and night-time lows have only touched zero once or twice.

Still blooming in our garden are Schizostylis, Calendula, hardy Fuchsias and even Nasturtium in a sheltered spot. Lemon Verbena still has all its leaves, a pink-flowered Rosemary has blossoms, and Primula ‘Wanda’ continues to put on a show. In the pond, Aponogeton distachys still bravely tries to bloom.

Among the things that one would expect to flower at this time of year, Mahonia x ‘Winter Sun’ lives up to its name in spectacular fashion. Nearby, Chaenomeles’ buds show red. The yellow-flowered Jasmine nudiflorum has never bloomed more heavily nor for so long; Arbutus unedo carried a large crop of its red fruits and is still heavily laden with bloom. Hamamelis x ‘Copper Beauty’ is flaunting its coppery ribbons on every bough and twig, while H. ‘Pallida’ has swollen buds just ready to burst into lemony-yellow bloom. Under it, winter Aconite has made a premature appearance. Snow drops burst from the ground before Christmas as they have done every year. Even the Ipheion, Tritelia uniflora is blooming here and there.

Oddly, only one of the Rhododendrons produced flowers this autumn, and that sparingly. Usually several, especially those having ‘Fabia’ in their parentage, put on a display – but not this winter.

Yet, we have a feeling of unease because we remember a similar winter, that of 1988-89. During that winter, the temperature remained well above freezing until February 1. But on that date, late in the afternoon, the temperature fell precipitately, as an icy wind blew out of Howe Sound across the Strait of Georgia. By 9 pm the temperature was close to –16 degrees C and the wind was gusting to 60 km per hour. For several days, the wind blew and the temperature remained well below freezing. No snow covered the ground, and the unprotected plants, which had been misled into spring-like activities, were devastated.

We lost many good plants – including Ceanothus thyrsiflorus, Magnolia grandiflora var ‘Victoria’, and a large-leaved Rhododendron. The latter was a small plant I had tried to save by covering it with a cardboard box full of leaves. After the frost was over, I noticed the bark of the stem had split longitudinally- it just peeled off, and that was the end of another rhodo! Arbutus unedo was cut to the ground, but eventually recovered. We learned then that one should not be in too much hurry to remove frost-damaged plants, since many will come back from the roots, but our losses, and I have only listed a few, were sobering. On the following Tuesday, at a meeting of the Victoria Horticultural Society, members received black arm-bands to wear in mourning for their deceased plants.

It can happen, and there isn’t much that one can do about it when such severe outflow winds occur. We have mounded compost around the base of roses and several other tender plants – the Lemon Verbena has a pile of bricks over its roots to help moderate sudden changes in temperature – but the combination of no snow, high winds and bitter cold is difficult for the gardener to surmount. We can only hope for the best – and a Happy New Year to all.

This timely article has been reprinted from a recent Finnerty Gardens newsletter.