‘Wrong’ weather conditions can be heart-breaking. But, in winter, we can take steps to help prevent wet, rotting plants or icy, frizzled ones.

As ever, many of our woes are caused by the state of our soil. During a wet spell, water rushes through thin, gritty ground and impoverishes it by washing away nutrients. And clay soil is just as bad. Its dense structure can leave water sitting on the surface as well as preventing it from draining through.

You can avert this with well-structured soil. Make thin soil crumbly and friable by adding organic material like home-made compost, manure and leafmould. These magical ingredients have revolutionised my shallow, gritty ground over the years. They also help break up impermeable clay soil, if that’s your problem.

But, at this time of year, it is mulching that helps improve structure and reduces the damage caused by our relentless Scottish downpours. It acts as a cushion and prevents the soil compaction that leads to flooding and nutrient leaching.

Organic material, such as leafmould, mushroom compost or even spent commercial compost, is best. This winter duvet gradually enriches the ground, thanks to the tireless labours of our worms. And, judging by their predilection for damp newspaper in my wormery, you could give the worms an extra treat by first covering the ground with a thick layer of newspaper or cardboard.

If possible, try to avoid using environmentally-damaging black plastic unless you make it last several years. And to reduce compaction, spread damp newspaper beneath the plastic.

Many folk also like to follow the traditional farming practice of spreading muck on their beds. It does break down over the winter and provides a protective cover, but some nutrients will be lost as winter rains wash them away. And it’s terribly wasteful to squander good home-made compost just now, when plants aren’t actively growing and absorbing its goodness.

Although most evergreens are hardy enough to cope with very cold weather, some Mediterranean herbs and winter salading may need a winter overcoat. So cover the likes of rosemary, variegated sage and endives with fleece or Enviromesh.

Protection against extreme cold and waterlogging apply equally to container growing. Although I have to stuff the greenhouse with more tender specimens, like lemon verbena and pelargoniums, hardier ones, such as bay, usually survive outdoors. I can rely on plant jackets to protect them from all but the Beast from the East.

Where possible, I pack less hardy plants in containers together, placing them close to the south-facing house wall. This makes air temperature slightly higher. Those in small pots can huddle together under a jacket or fleece during the worst weather.

When not buried in the soil, plant roots are much more vulnerable so this grouping protects all but the outer perimeter. They shelter inside a thick layer of the bubble film, the kind that comes with mail order packages, secured with a bungee.

Waterlogging is a serious problem. Plants that are close to the house get a little shelter and the slight overhang of a shed roof beside my patio does the same job.

Good drainage is essential for most containers. A mix of coarse grit and compost is needed for many ornamentals, and you should place 2 or 3 pieces of crock over a terracotta pot’s drainage hole to let water escape. And plant feet must replace plant saucers in winter. Three or four old slates are a free alternative.

Even when a pot sits on the soil, you may need to jack it up a little, as I’ve had to do for a couple of rosemary plants.

Plant of the week

Polypodium vulgare is an evergreen fern native to Scotland. It thrives on old dykes and also grows as an epiphyte, particularly on oak branches. It quickly recovers from summer desiccation or extreme freezing.