This Week in the Garden: Frost and Gales

The garden has taken a bit of a battering these last few weeks.

As an El Niño takes hold in the Pacific, the weather here is reacting in an almost text-book way: some very cold nights of -9°C / 15°F, and then yo-yo like temperatures of freezing days followed ridiculously mild ones and weeks of bitterly cold & dry, gale-force winds sweeping from the interior of the continent.

It is such a change from April & May which saw incredible deluges and the onset of early winter weather.

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Frosty Grass

Many plants that I thought were hardy have actually succumbed to the chill.

Buxus macrophylla (Japanese Box) is usually tough and I planted it because it is the most resistant to box blight – which is also in Australia – but it tends to go an unattractive bronze in icy weather:

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Frost-bitten boxwood

Even the Leylandii hedges that are in the exposed areas have taken on a bronze tint, but not as pronounced as the buxus.

There have been a few losses: many of the salvias have been cut to the ground. I won’t know for sure whether these have survived until later in spring when new growth (hopefully) reappears.

The Tree Dahlia, which survived many frosts down to about -5°C / 23°F unscathed, couldn’t make it through the -9°C / 15°F weather and has been cut back for the year. Although I get a number of extra plants from the canes, so I’m not complaining!


As I don’t really feel the cold, winter is a great time for me to get stuck into making new garden beds and reclaiming the grass.

On the western side of the garden in the shade of existing trees, I have dug over and planted up a new garden bed filled with mostly low to medium growing Rhododendrons. In addition to their wonderful spring flowers, these will help block some of the bitterly cold westerly winds that tear through the garden in winter as well as provide a bit of late afternoon shade in summer.

There are a number of lower growing deciduous plants (Fothergilla major, Cornus, Spirea, Mollis Azaleas etc) at the front of the bed as well as larger deciduous plants interspersed (Ribes sanguineum, Linnæa nee Kolkwitza amabilis, Hamamelis x intermedia, Hydrangea paniculata) which will provide more seasonal interest as Rhododendrons alone can be a little gloomy.

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Fothergilla will provide three seasons of interest against the dark backdrop

I also have a lot of foxgloves and poppies that I have grown from seed which will help fill the gaps while the shrubs establish themselves.

Most of the Rhododendrons are species that grow no more than 1-2m (3′-6′) tall and wide…also, you can see some of the daily ice patches still lingering in the top of this picture:

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Rhododendron sp and a big patch of ice in the background

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More Rhododendron & Azalea sp.

This part of the garden will form one of the (yet-to-be-built) retaining walled areas. The rocks that you see below stacked across the top of the photo run the length of the garden.

These rocks were all dug from that garden bed.

In a bid to be environmentally friendly, I am limiting the materials to those found on site, so I have to dig the rocks out first before being able to build the walls. Hopefully for this retaining wall, I will need to bring in no more than 350kg of sand/cement on site.

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View to the yet to be constructed terrace – must remove those plant tags!!!!

I’ve also finished up another garden bed around one of the large gum trees. In this bed there are irises, salvias (those that survived the frosts), primulas, poppies and an assortment of bulbs:

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Curved, stack-stone garden bed

A small growing weeping Japanese maple will eventually clothe the base of the gum tree and provide a sense of enclosure for the seating area behind.

I must confess that when I first moved here, I tired of the never-ending stone that foiled every effort to cultivate the soil without spending hours digging out heavy rubble….I was left wondering what on earth to do with it all…these dry-stack walls, while rustic, certainly give a sense of place and I have learnt to love them.

As an added benefit, insects shelter between the cracks and the rocks slow down water which drains away on this very steep site, and they radiate warmth which can actually be the difference between a plant living or dying….all in all, quite useful!


Despite the ice, with fast draining soil, there is still a bit in flower. Especially where the garden is sheltered. In fact, with the sunshine, some parts of the garden think it is spring, even though the days are freezing.

I guess it shows the power of creating mini micro climates:

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Iceland poppy

The Iceland poppies – normally just a spring annual – have not stopped since they were planted last year (Spring, Summer, Autumn and now Winter), which is amazing. They do so well here, with no additional water, that I have added many, many more around the garden.

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Cistus and Spirea

I rather like the Cistus and Spirea combo – each of the reds complementing the other….and it isn’t something you normally see side-by-side!

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Sisyrinchium bellum

Sisyrinchium bellum, sheltered against another rock retaining wall, enjoys the additional warmth by giving extra flowers.

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Marguerite

As does the Marguerite, which is really lighting up this part of the garden with its out-of-season display.

Even bulbs are getting in on the act:

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First Spring Stars

The Triteleia (spring star) is blooming many months early in this sunny, sheltered spot.

As is this Narcissus. It is normally an early one, but this is amazing:

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Very early Jonquil

This was resurrected from a clients’ garden, so I don’t know what variety it is.

The Fuchsias have also escaped the worst of the frost, but you can see a bit of damage. Despite this, they are still powering along:

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Fuchsia

Spirea ‘Anthony waterer’ is putting on an odd display:

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“This was moved from a sheltered spot and then hit with frost…yikes


And course, there are the actual winter flowering plants. Osteospermum:

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African Daisy

Pansies look pretty with their little dusting of ice melting in the sun:

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Frosty Pansies

The Hamemelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ is not only full of buds very early thanks to the prolonged cold, it has also started to flower. This is the first time I’ve grown witch hazel (my Sydney garden was too warm and my London garden was too small) and not only did it have a stunning early autumn display, but it also give these lovely little translucent flowers which are very difficult to photograph!

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Tiny confetti-like Witch-Hazel flowers

The Pieris japonica, also a little frost-bitten, is putting on a nice early display:

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Lily of the Valley tree

But the some best flowers of winter belong to the Australian Natives. Anyone who is in a garden that doesn’t regularly drop below -15°C should consider at least one of these plants for winter interest:

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Brachyscome multifida

The Brachyscome multifidia is blooms most of the year but gives its best display in winter/spring. It is hardy to -15°C / 5°F and as you can see it is undamaged by the recent frosts.

Another stalwart of this winter garden is the Grevillea, Grevillea banksii x bipinnatifida: this shrub had been covered in mildew all summer long from the rain. The frost has cleared that up nicely:

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Grevillea banksii x bipinnatifida

This one has not been damaged by the ice, and even though the literature says it is hardy only to about -5°C / 23°F, it has survived many hours well below that temperature for weeks now without skipping a beat.

Happy Gardening 🙂

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41 thoughts on “This Week in the Garden: Frost and Gales

  1. Yikes, Matt. I hate to think that the El Nino that may help ease our drought is already wreaking havoc with your climate. We got a bit of rain from a tropical storm today, which is extraordinary, although I haven’t heard any of the forecasters link it the developing El Nino. I’m glad you’re able to work with what nature deals you in any case. I was so surprised to see a Grevillea looking so fine with a bit of frost! And your Narcissus and Ipheon are blooming so very early! Even here, those flowers don’t show up in early winter.

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    • Thanks Kris – we’ve had a lot of rain over the past few years and most water storage is full (in this part of Australia anyway). Even during the worst drought years, this area still manages about 30-40″ of rain, so the garden will be fine – some of the newer plants I’ll water, but most will be left to their own devices. I think the bulbs were fooled by weeks of dreary winter like weather in late Autumn and now that the sun is shining they think its spring (despite the temperature never getting above 55F)

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    • Thanks! Some of them have been massive and taken two guys to move, they are more like boulders than rocks. But they form very good keys-tones for a retaining wall!

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  2. Looking good, Matt… We’ve been having some of that yo-yo weather here too. I don’t think it’s so much that the plants aren’t hardy, but I think the weather swings happen so suddenly, there is no chance for them to ease into it gently, and slowly building up tolerance. Instead, it truly is like a roller coaster where they are thrown from one extreme to the other with no real chance to adjust. I know that fluctuations like that would wear me out, so naturally I project that same reaction to my plant friends. 😉

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    • Very true. It exhausts me as well! One day 55F, the next 30F!!!!! Its also been exacerbated by all of the rain and cold weather that we had in late autumn, so areas where the soil was still wet suffered the most. It’s like the situation that the UK gardeners find themselves in during winter: even though the frosts are quite mild, the soil is so soggy that plants just keel over 😦

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  3. We have some up and down weather here too, 25c due on Friday and back down to 14c on Monday but an English summer is rarely much to write home about. Your temperatures look really chilly Matt and incredible that you have an Iceland poppy in flower, is the name indicative of surviving low temperatures? Happy Gardening to you too, glad the chill is not stopping you getting on with things.

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    • That sounds just like summer here! The Iceland poppy is native to the sub-polar areas of Europe, so I think -9C is a summer morning for it, especially when you combine that with bright Australian sunshine 🙂

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  4. sorry you are having such dreadful weather Matt, I am amazed at the contrasts in your garden from the browning of some plants by the wind and frost to those lovely flowers in the sheltered areas, I smiled when I saw your narcissus, we both have multi headed narcissus flowering in June for Australia early, for Scotland late, topsy turvy weather, I like your dry stone walls, I’ve always liked dry stone walls, I get a lot of stone too but mine tends to be smaller so I have learnt to use it for paths, your new border sounds good, Frances

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    • Thanks Frances, it’s amazing to think that this narcissus can be in flower so early – I nearly fell over when I saw it in bloom! I’ve put a little tag around it as I want move such an early blooming one closer to the house where I can enjoy it 🙂
      It’s amazing what you can find already in the garden to use in the garden. I entertained getting some timber for the retaining wall as it would have been much quicker, but then I would still have all the rocks to contend with, so this was the ideal choice!

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  5. You still have so many lovely flowers in your garden, I still can’t imagine Australia with frost and ice, I always think of it as perpetually sunny! Some plants are amazing in that they can stand temperatures much lower than we think.
    We found rounded pebbles in our garden when we started digging the flower beds, some were small, some rather large, but they have all been put to good use in the garden as your stones have. Your walls are going to be fantastic, as you say, lots of little spaces for the wildlife to hide in.

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    • Thanks Pauline! I think the key to plants being able to withstand the frost is drainage and light levels. I remember in my shady, clay-soil London garden, even light frosts of -1-3C would really damage plants that here in Australia will withstand much lower temperatures.
      With the walls, it’s amazing to see how many insects and lizards make use of the shelter – both in summer and winter.

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  6. C’est toujours surprenant de comparer les différences entre les continents. Ton jardin reste cependant superbe, malgré le froid et toutes ces intempéries subies 🙂 J’aime toutes ces variétés représentées
    Belle journée 🙂

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  7. Hi Matt, I find that plants in regions with a long growing season get a better chance to mature and toughen, so usually come back even after a cold winter. If your Grevillea gets through it lots of others will too. The climate does very though big time even in a garden and shelter of walls and others plants make such a difference. I grow a lot of delicate plants at the base of the house wall, no worries. Your rhododendron border will be impressive when it matures. Is it sufficiently wet in your area or do you have to water it a lot in summer? Is the soil acidic? Keep warm 🙂

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    • Thanks Annette! We get so much rain – especially during summer/autumn. If the El Nino is severe, then for us, late Spring and early summer will be dry, which does place a lot of stress on plants as they are flowering prolifically at that time and don’t need drought as well! Rhododendrons do very well here, we have acid soil and the cold, misty summers that they like…they are even used as roadside plants!

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  8. The garden is still looking good. We are looking forward to El Nino here, less Hurricanes in the Atlantic! I had walls like yours in my former garden and enjoyed planting in the crevices; also extremely free draining soil, Could not grow hostas to save my life! Love the Grevilleas.

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  9. The value of microclimates was blindingly obvious from the island off Cornwall we visited this week. The rock crevices were supporting plants that had no right existing in England, the rock acting like a giant radiator.

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    • It’s always so wonderful to see that just a few inches of warmer, radiated airspace is all that is needed for a tender plant to thrive – and the other benefit is that the wall visually breaks up the space, so that it makes it a little easier to design the planting schemes around it, than a border in the middle of a lawn

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    • Thankfully we don’t have that disease here (yet – but they keep cutting federal funding to quarantine agencies, so more diseases are finding their way to Australia). It looks like a particularly devastating problem

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    • Thanks Mary! The wind has finally eased (thank goodness – a week of gales starts to send me loopy!) The real test will be this spring which will probably be quite dry if the El Nino sticks around as forecast. I’ve tried to pick plants that are non-flammable as well as those that are thriving in old neglected gardens, so hopefully I won’t have to top up with water beyond one season

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  10. We have an amazing small nursery that my husband and I were privileged to do work experience for back when we were studying horticulture together, that sells rare and amazing rhododendrons. I love the large leaved varieties especially and some of the flowers are incredible. I thought that we had it cold down here at -1C. Obviously we are spoiled! I love Mollis azaleas. They are the shining stars in the garden once they start to flower with their electric coloured flowers. You have rock laden soil as well? Sounds like we are on the same meridian line ;). I was walking Earl the wonderdog yesterday morning at 5.30 and on the way home (when it was a bit lighter than black 😉 ) I noticed that there were Triteleia out as well. Crazy times for them to be flowering! Usually fuchsias are the first thing to succumb to frost and cold temperatures. Kudos on getting yours to survive. You must have them in a microclimate someplace. Don’t worry about the spirea. It does that here as well and has survived admirably. It’s amazing how similar our growing conditions are considering our gardens are a LONG way from each other. Cheers for a lovely bright share Matt 🙂

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    • -1C would be nice at the moment…we have had days where it has only just nudged above 0C for about 2 hrs and then two days later it’s been 13C….it’s all over the shop!
      It’s interesting to see that bulbs are flowering early in Tassie too, perhaps they know something we don’t…like an early spring?

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  11. 15F? I suppose some would consider that cold. I will, however, say that I love Iceland Poppies. Every year the Chicago Botanic Garden plants an entire hillside in them, then yanks them out when it gets hot. Very wasteful, but also magical.

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    • The poppies are lovely, but they can’t stand heat – as it almost never gets above 75F here in summer, they thrive all year round. I guess my climate is like an eternal spring for them 🙂

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  12. amazing all that lives in your climate! You don’t get the “killing” everything we do in the midwest of usa…below zero + nothing for months. You have such a variety of plants:-) You must garden four season:-) Happy GArdening to you too! I am playing catch-up this summer. Adding new trees, beds etc…so not at my computer much this summer.

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    • Thanks Robbie, I think that zone 8 with cool summers like I have is probably as close to paradise for a gardener that you can get. It’s cold enough to grow everything that needs chill to thrive and mild enough to get even relatively tropical plants growing 🙂 Your summer of planting sounds perfect!

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  13. I find it amazing what a variety of lovely flowers you have in bloom despite your chilly temperatures. Winter is quite a challenge here but you seem to cope with it so well in your lovely garden.

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    • Thanks! It seems to be more challenging this year given the colder temperatures arrived so early in the season. Having gardened in the UK, this climate is almost identical, but the soils have drainage so I don’t loose as much to the cold

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  14. Matt, so interesting to read your post from the perspective of a summer that might just have arrived here in northern Europe. We had such a cool Spring in Ireland so things are later than normal, now a prolonged dry period… the trials of being a gardener!
    Good luck with your winter plans and look forward to seeing rhododendron pics in the future.

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    • It is true that the weather is often the thing foremost on a gardeners mind! Hopefully the new plants will sufficiently establish themselves prior any expected drought associated with an El Nino event

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  15. Debra says:

    What a planet. I love your images. Hope you can stay warm and safe. El nino seems like this balancing force to me. Bringing warmth and dryness to some (my friends on Haida Gwaii), heat to CA, water to the US southwest and cold air to you. I am amazed at this evidence that we are all connected.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks – it is amazing how one event can drive that climate of so many parts of the world. If it continues and strengthens, it will make us hot and dry and the west coast of the US cool and wet by Christmas….

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