January is a unique month in the year when plants, on the whole, demand very little from gardeners. House plants are an exception, but even these have minimal needs when light levels are low and days are short. January is the perfect month for gardeners to take stock, plan ahead, or simply take a break from it all. Personally I seize the moment to read a book or take a weekend break knowing that the garden will take care of itself whilst I am away. Those of us who work during the week will find opportunities for gardening are restricted to weekends, and then only when the weather is fine. January offers us a brief interlude during which to reflect on the glories of the past whilst crystallising our thoughts for the future. If you’re not content with quiet contemplation, here are ten things to keep you occupied over the next two or three weeks:
1) Take time to reappraise your garden – in winter our gardens are laid bare. Herbaceous plants retreat underground, leaves fall from the trees and the framework of our gardens is exposed. There is no better time to assess the structure and layout of one’s garden, with the best months to make adjustments lying immediately ahead. Ask yourself if a border has grown too wild and woolly, if a space has become overly cramped, or if a tree has outgrown its lot. Dream up ideas for areas that have been neglected for a while and make a promise to yourself to fulfil them. Don’t fall into the trap of imagining you have more space than you do. Winter gaps are like Brigadoon – when spring comes they disappear as fast as they appeared.
2) Remove leaves from clumps of hellebore and epimedium – judging by what I am seeing on Instagram, many of us have hellebores in bloom already, myself included. It’s wise to remove last year’s foliage before those pert buds open to reveal their iconic blossoms: the whole plant will appear neater and the blooms will be easier to admire. Epimediums flower a little later than hellebores, but their evergreen foliage, so valued during the early days of winter, can disguise the emerging flower stems. Attempting to trim off old leaves once the flower stems have started to unfurl is needlessly fiddly and time-consuming. Watch where you are treading to avoid crushing emerging snowdrops and narcissi.
3) Keep off the grass – unless it’s been dry for several weeks it’s wise to keep off lawns and borders as often as is practical during the winter months. Trodden on when wet, air is squeezed out of the soil causing compaction and waterlogging: bad cases may take months, even years to correct. Good soil is an incredibly valuable commodity, so treat it as such. If you must work on the garden when the ground is wet, use duck boards to spread your weight and that of your equipment across a wider area, thereby reducing the risk of damage. Duck boards will also keep your boots a little cleaner.
4) Boost colour with seasonal planting – it may be January, but it need not be dull outside your kitchen window. Unless the ground is frozen or waterlogged, most hardy plants will tolerate being planted out during a mild spell. Pots, troughs and windowboxes can be refreshed at almost any time. Gardeners lacking confidence in what to plant for seasonal colour should make regular visits to their local garden centre or nursery to check what’s on offer. Although nursery-grown stock tends to be in its prime earlier than it would be in our gardens, if a plant is looking appealing it’s probably worth considering. Market sellers in town centres will often make bulk buys of plants such as Christmas roses (Helleborus niger), miniature cyclamen and bedding pansies. These can offer a quick fix for a small outlay, but be sure they are in good condition when you buy and acclimatise to outdoor conditions before planting out.
5) Order seeds and summer-flowering bulbs – The time-honoured tradition of sitting in an armchair and thumbing through the latest seed catalogues has yet to be killed off by digital alternatives. Hallelujah for that! Immediately after Christmas, sometimes before, the new season’s seed and bulb catalogues start to plop through the letter box, slick with glossy imagery and emblazoned with dainty badges exclaiming ‘NEW’ and ‘EXCLUSIVE’. In a sherry-soaked stupor we put ticks and crosses by the flowers and veggies that tickle our fancy before taking a cheeky forty winks. What bliss! There is surely no better way to spend a dull January afternoon. Thankfully gardening folk seem reluctant to surrender to the screen so the catalogues keep-a-coming and we keep-a-buying.
Meanwhile it’s a great time to clear seed boxes of old packets ready to make way for new purchases. It’s worth sowing seed that’s past its best before date, providing one can make use of the plants if they germinate. Left over bulbs that should have been dealt with in autumn should be planted without further ado.
6) Prepare for bad weather – December can be a mild month, more akin to November than to January in terms of temperature. There is a risk of being lulled into a false sense of security, imagining that cold weather might never come: it almost certainly will. If you’ve not protected your tender plants – and this includes removing top-heavy growth that might catch the wind – do so without delay. I still have bananas in the ground and this is asking for trouble. If you’re a risk taker, or your plants are too large to move, then a few layers of horticultural fleece or hessian (burlap) will provide a good amount of protection from a few degrees of frost. Wet can be the biggest killer and is particularly deadly when combined with cold. Cover susceptible plants such as agaves, echiums and alpines with polycarbonate sheeting or well-ventilated cloches and check regularly for signs of rot and mould. Once problems have set in, they are almost impossible to stop, so prevention is essential.
7) Clean tools – Yes, I can hear you yawning and see your eyes rolling, but you know you should. Spades, forks, rakes, hoes, saws and secateurs experience a lot of action over the course of a year and they’ll appreciate some tender loving care before coming into service again. A stiff brush will remove dried-on dirt before washing or hosing down and then drying with an old towel (I keep all my old towels for this purpose, using them until they are threadbare). Drying is essential to prevent wooden handles from absorbing water and metal blades from rusting. Depending on the quality of the metal they are made from, tools may also benefit from buffing with an oiled cloth to create a protective layer.
Secateurs quickly become gummed-up and blackened by coagulated plant sap. If they’re left damp they may also develop rusty patches. All this adds up to a less effective tool requiring more effort to use, so it pays to remove any dirt with fine wire wool coated in a little WD40. If you feel confident, and I’m confess I generally don’t, then follow cleaning with sharpening. Ensure you do this correctly to avoid damaging the blades. You Tube is a great source of ‘How To’ videos.
8) Bring house plants into the light – Whilst many house plants are not fans of bright sunlight for the majority of the year, during the short, dull days of January, when the sun is low in the sky, it’s unlikely any plant will receive all the light it ideally needs. Bring houseplants as close to light-sources as you can and keep them away from radiators and draughts. Mist regularly and stand pots on trays of damp pebbles to maintain humidity, but keep watering to a minimum. House plants are unlikely to grow a great deal during the winter period, but some, like Christmas cacti (see below), will flower. Remove spent flowers and keep an eye out for pests such as whitefly, greenfly and red spider mite, which will gleefully attack a plant when it’s resistance is low. By March you should be able to move your plants back to their normal positions.
9) Prune apples, pears and wisteria – secateurs and pruning saws duly cleaned and sharpened, their first deployment of the year should be to prune fruit trees, roses and deciduous climbers such as wisteria and clematis. Apple and pear trees can be pruned any time from November until the end of February. I’d recommend referring to the RHS website or a good gardening manual for specific advice on this important task.
Having cut back whippy wisteria shoots to five or six leaves in summer, those same shoots may now be cut back further to just two or three buds. Doing this tidies up the plant and ensures emerging flowers are not obscured by foliage. Old or wayward wisteria may require more drastic pruning. Take your time and carefully remove any old, dead or tangled branches to leave a neat framework. If there are gaps, new growth can be trained to fill them in spring.
10) Feed the birds – our feathered friends bring colour, activity and merriment to our gardens just when we need it the most. On mild days the sound of chattering sparrows and the flittings of a industrious blackbird fool me into imagining it must be spring. Keep birdfeeders filled with a variety of seeds, nuts and fats to encourage as many bird species to your garden as possible. Keep the ground beneath bird feeders well swept if you’re worried about rodents (my neighbour has a big problem with mice thanks to the amount of seed the wood pigeons deposit on the floor) and clean feeders occasionally with a weak detergent to prevent diseases from spreading. Don’t forget to provide birds with a supply of fresh water, which can be just as scarce as food during the winter months. TFG.