THE time has come to take measures to protect your tender plants before the first frost gets them.

As the weather cools down, plants will need covering, bulbs will need lifting or mulching and extra winter protection given to tender specimens which will have to be brought indoors if they are to survive the coldest months.

So, what steps should you be taking to care for your plants?

Wrap them up

Use horticultural fleece, hessian or bubble wrap to wrap around permanent plants in pots. You need to stop the roots from freezing, which could ultimately kill the plant. If you have lots of pots, huddle them together near a house wall, where it will be slightly warmer. They will insulate each other and you can use one large length of protective material to protect all the plants. Tie the cover round them securely so it doesn't blow off in winter.

Next time you're planting a tender permanent specimen in a frost-resistant container, line the inside wall of the pot with bubble wrap to save you having to do it in the autumn.

Plants in borders which can't easily be moved, such as tree ferns, should be wrapped in horticultural fleece, from the base of the trunk upwards. The leaves of tree ferns and other tender plants such as cordylines should be tied upright, packed with straw and covered with horticultural fleece, plus a layer of mulch should be laid over the root area.

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Make a frame

Small tender shrubs can be protected with makeshift frames made from chicken wire or a wigwam made from bamboo canes packed with straw and then covered in netting. In wet weather, you may need to temporarily cover them with clear polythene to stop them rotting in the wet.

If frost is forecast, keep a pair of old curtains to hand to cover borderline hardy plants overnight to prevent damage.

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Move them indoors

Many tender plants, such as geraniums, begonias and half hardy fuchsias will need to be brought under cover before the first frosts. Put them in a frost-free greenhouse or garden shed to give them the best chance.

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Lift plants

Dig up tubers and rhizomes of tender plants like cannas and dahlias once the foliage has been blackened by the first frost. Cut them down to within 5cm (2in) of the base and dig them up with a fork, taking care to avoid damaging the rhizomes, remove all loose soil and dry them off, before storing them in boxes of dry sand or soil in a cool, frost-free place like a shed (for dahlias) or a greenhouse or conservatory (for cannas).

If you live in a mild area, you may get away with just a thick mulch such as straw or compost around the roots. If you can provide shelter for dahlias or cannas grown in containers, bring them under a porch or into an unheated greenhouse.

Darlington and Stockton Times: