If you don’t venture out the garden can look pretty dead at this time of year. However, get outside and it is soon apparent that things are already getting ready for Spring. There are buds forming on some trees and shrubs, bulbs coming up with snowdrops and hellebores coming into flower. there are also some fabulously scented shrubs in flower in January; Mahonia, Daphne and Viburnum providing a vital supply of nectar to bumble bees through the winter.
If the ground is not saturated or frozen solid now is the time to move deciduous trees and shrubs. Either because they are not where you want them or they have got too big for their space. The more roots and soil you can take with them the more likely they are to re-establish. You may need a bit of “outside assistance” as root balls are always heavier than you think they will be! New bare-root trees and shrubs can also be planted. Even though the ground is damp remember to always water in plants as soon as planted. It helps wash soil around the roots.
Wisterias should have their second prune now. Take all the side shoots back to 2 or 3 buds. This encourages flower buds to form and should ensure a fabulous display in May/June.
It is also time to prune climbing roses. Remove some of the old growth and tie-in the branches to form the network at an angle of 45 degrees or less, then shorten all the sideshoots to a couple of buds. This encourages flowering along the length of the branches rather than a few flowers clustered at the top. After pruning mulch with well-rotted manure or compost.
Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) and other vigorous climbers, need pruning whilst dormant as they “bleed” once the sap has begun to flow. This puts them at risk of disease. Check they are not growing into gutters, window frames or under roof tiles where they can cause damage.
Apple and pear trees are also due for a prune. Cut back the leaders (vertical stems) so the plant puts more energy into its flowers and fruit rather than trying to reach the stars. Also you need to thin out overcrowded or damaged branches. The aim is to have an open shape. This allows better air circulation which helps prevent disease and also lets more sunlight into the centre of the tree; important to help ripen fruit later in the year.
If you have hedges to prune make sure it is done by the end of February as the birds will be searching for nesting sites.
Although traditionally a February job, in warm Winters you can start to cut back late-flowering clematis at the end of the month. After pruning apply a mulch of well-rotted garden compost or manure.
Buddleia that has become very leggy or large can be hard-pruned now to encourage more growth lower down the plant.
Remove the old leaves from Hellebores. You will be able to see the new buds already forming at the base. Clearing away the old leaves makes it easier to see the flowers once they are open and also helps reduce the risk of disease as the old leaves die and rot.
Although it is Winter any slightly warmer spells will get the weeds going. It is a good opportunity to get on top of them whilst there is less to do in the garden.
Clear old growth and leaves from the borders especially from the crowns of herbaceous perennials that may rot under damp leaves. Once the beds are cleared mulch with well-rotted manure or garden compost. As well as helping the plants waiting to come back into growth this also empties you compost bins ready for the new season. Compost can be put on the beds even if they are frozen but don’t walk, or push wheelbarrows, on frozen lawns.
In wet winters the combination of saturated ground and high winds has resulted in several trees and large shrubs coming down. In the case of large shrubs, if you can, lift them back up and find something to tie them to for now making sure the roots are covered with soil. Once the ground has begun to dry out you can then replant if necessary. Reducing the height of the bush will also help. It will make the plant less top-heavy and also give it less plant to support whilst its roots re-establish. For large trees it is usually a case of removing them but please make sure anyone using a chainsaw knows what they are doing and has the proper protective equipment. Ideally this is a job to leave to a properly qualified and insured tree surgeon.
Although it is sad to lose a tree that has probably been growing for many years it may provide an opportunity to revamp an area especially if the tree created a lot of shade. The perfect task for a wet, grey January day is to sit and plan your new area and create a lovely plant shopping list for when the weather improves! Although you may well already have suitable plants elsewhere in the garden which you can divide.
Check any newly-planted shrubs and trees. Wet ground and high winds, or severe frosts, may mean they have been loosened in the ground and will need firming in. At the same time check tree stakes and other plant supports are firmly in the ground.
Don’t forget your plants which are over-wintering in the greenhouse. Immediately remove any leaves or stems showing signs of botrytis or mould. Everything is so damp this winter thanks to the bonkers amount of rain we’ve had that there is an increased risk of plants and stored tubers rotting. On brighter frost-free days opening the greenhouse for a couple of days to improve ventilation will help.
The warmer weather means pests continue to be a problem. I have been removing greenfly and caterpillars from my pelargoniums on a regular basis this winter. I don’t use sprays so just remove greenfly with my fingers and caterpillars are removed to the garden for the birds.
Grow your own fruit and vegetables
Start chitting your early crop potatoes. Chitting is where you put your seed potatoes in a dry, sunny spot to encourage them to begin to sprout before you plant them.
Broad beans and peas can be started if you have a frost-free greenhouse, or equivalent, as can sweet peas. Sweet peas germinate more reliably if soaked overnight in a little water. It softens the outer shell and in the morning they will have plumped up.
Although watering is much reduced over the winter keep an eye on plants in pots as they may need the occasional drink. Conversely, you also need to make sure drainage holes have not become blocked leaving pots flooded.
Grass cutting time will soon be upon us so get the lawn mower serviced ready for action.
Lastly, don’t forget the birds and other wildlife. They will struggle to find water when it is freezing and will appreciate access to an ice-free drink. The birds will also be very grateful for some food. Most of the seeds and berries have now gone and there are not many insects around yet. We have a robin at the stable yard who will come and shout at us for some bird seed on cold frosty mornings!