January

There is a hawthorn in the boundary hedge of my garden. It is a scrubby affair, not much more than a bush really, but every mid-January the sun lingers just over the top of it before dipping down over the horizon across the fields. This is an important day because that light shines straight down the main garden path and catches the panes of my greenhouses reflecting the blaze of sunset. The garden is literally lit up for the first time since October. The January days gradually lengthen and hope creeps back into my world.

Throughout November and December I spend more time looking at the garden than working in it. This is no bad thing. Really looking hard as the leaves fall away and die back forms a kind of permanent image in your brain that can be clothed with plants throughout the rest of the year. But at some point looking is not enough. So in January I start gardening again in earnest.

The weather has quite a lot to do with how much actually gets done. Although December is the gloomiest month, January can be very cold, snowy or very wet. Snow and rain severely limit what can be done so I cross my fingers and hope for a period of cold, dry weather when the ground will be hard enough to push a wheelbarrow without sinking to the axle in mud and – the greatest luxury of all and the failsafe measure of good winter weather – I can walk outside without having to put on wellington boots.

Snowdrops, aconites, hellebores, catkins and most gloriously of all, the early irises are all coming into flower. The garden is coming alive again – and so am I.

What to do in the garden this month:

WINTER PRUNING OF FRUIT TREES

This is always my big January job and if nothing else this is something I like to have finished by the end of the month.

Try to understand how something grows before pruning. Does it flower on new or old wood? Does it grow new shoots in a great post-flowering burst or do they steadily emerge over the season? Does a fruit tree need to achieve a certain maturity to create spurs that bear fruit or will they be produced in the first year of growth? Does the plant heal well or is it, like cherries and plums, a bleeder – and if so when does it produce least sap? If in doubt about any of this – don’t cut. Wait. You will never do harm by not pruning and patience in a garden is a great virtue.

If you prune an apple tree hard each winter it will make a mass of new growth but no flowers – and therefore no fruit. This cycle is often perpetuated by even harder pruning the following year – to get rid of all that new, fruitless growth, which, having lots of lovely succulent sap, will attract aphids and fungal disease. So through over-zealous and mistimed pruning people often ruin their fruit trees.

If you wish to curtail growth you leave the pruning to summer – July is ideal – when the foliage is fully grown and before the roots start to store food for winter. Do not prune plums, apricots, peaches or cherries (these should be pruned in late Spring and only if absolutely necessary).

APPLES AND PEARS

The idea is to produce a tree that has plenty of light and air reaching the centre. I do this by imagining a pigeon flying straight at the tree and pruning it so it can fly right through it from any angle. In principle you are trying to make a goblet-shape or a cupped hand with the fingers making the branches around the empty palm.

Start by removing any crossing or rubbing branches. Cut back any overlong or straggly branches to a bud to promote vigorous multi-stemmed regrowth. Keep standing back and reviewing the shape so that it both looks handsome and retains a strong, open structure. Always use very sharp secateurs, loppers and saws and never strain – always use an implement that is working well within its capacity. That way you retain control and risk least damage to the tree – and yourself. Traditional advice was to paint any large wounds made by pruning but current thinking is that this does more harm than good as it seals in moisture and disease. By far the best course is to leave a clean cut and let it heal over itself.

TRAINED FRUIT (CORDONS,ESPALIERS,FANS)

You must be counter intuitive with these. Remember that the harder you cut, the stronger the regrowth – so cut back any weak growth in winter to encourage vigorous new shoots in Spring. You must then prune again in July to restrict growth.

PRUNING SOFT FRUIT

Cut back autumn fruiting raspberries to the ground, removing all of last year’s canes. Cut away all crossing and inward growing growth from Redcurrants and Gooseberries to create an open goblet shape. Reduce remaining growth by a third to create a strong framework of branches.

I always take a few cuttings from the pruned material of Gooseberries and Redcurrants because they strike very easily and it means I can constantly add new, vigorous plants to replace the older ones. Simply select a nice straight shoot and divide it into lengths between 4 & 9 inches (10 & 20cm) long. Cut the top of each section at an angle and the bottom straight so that you remember which way up they should be.

Place the cuttings around the edge of a pot filled with a gritty compost mix, burying them deeply so that only an inch or so is above the surface. Water them and put them in a sheltered place. They will not need any extra heat or protection and will take a few months to show signs of growth – which will be the indication that roots have formed. They will be ready to pot into individual pots by mid-summer and to plant out next winter.

ONION SETS AND SEEDS

The advantage of growing onions by seed is that there are so many varieties to choose from. However it is much easier – and more common – to grow them from sets, which are small bulbs. If the ground is dry enough these can be planted now about 9 inches apart in rows with the tips sticking out of the soil. However if it is too wet, I suggest planting a batch in plugs in ordinary peat-free compost and protecting them in a greenhouse or cool windowsill where they will establish shoots and roots. Harden them off for at least a week outside before planting out when the soil is dry enough for them.

SOWING CHILLIES

Chillies are always the first seeds that I sow in the new year. They can be slow to germinate and certainly need some heat, either on a heated bench or on a windowsill above a radiator. Because of this I tend to sow them in seed trays rather than plugs and then transplant them to plugs as soon as the seedlings develop true leaves, potting them on again in March and then to their final terracotta pots in May.

The secret of successful chilli growing – other than plenty of light and heat – is to allow each plant as much time and opportunity to become big and bushy, feeding it weekly with a high nitrogen fertiliser (I use home-made liquid nettle feed) until the first flower buds start to appear in June and then switching to a high potash feed (liquid seaweed or homemade comfrey feed are both ideal) to stimulate as many flowers and subsequent fruits as possible on what by now should be a large plant.

Chillies need plenty of water but hate being waterlogged, so use a free-draining compost and never water them after 5pm to avoid the risk of them sitting overnight in soggy compost.

CHOOSE & ORDER SEEDS

Growing from seed is the cheapest way to fill your garden with colour and delicious vegetables and deeply satisfying and New Year is the time to start ordering seeds.
Do not rush this. Check websites and catalogues, draw up wish lists and plan where you are going to plant the seedlings before you make your order. There is no hurry. As long as the seeds are ordered this month it will leave you plenty of time to sow and raise them.

There have never been so many opportunities for buying seeds as there are now with a huge range via the internet and mail order catalogues. It is worth spending a little time comparing options and selecting new varieties and you can find organically raised seeds, seeds mass produced, local seeds and seeds from across the world. One word of caution – check how many seeds are supplied per packet – often the best value comes with slightly larger quantities per packet.

EMERGENCY JOB

It is not too late to plant tulips – but you really do need to get on with it. Tulips planted now might flower a little later than those planted in November but they will make a perfectly good display. If intending to leave them in the ground plant as deeply as you can – at least 4 inches. But if you just want a good show this year they can be popped an inch or two in the topsoil and will be fine for this Spring. When planting in a container make sure that they have good drainage because although they are completely hardy to cold, the biggest enemy is rotting in damp soil. But this is a job to do by the middle of the month at the latest.

POTTING COMPOST

Many gardeners will have noticed that a self-sown seedling will grow much healthier than one carefully raised under glass and then transplanted to exactly the same part of the border. This is because the seedling starts that complex relationship with the soil from the outset rather than having to establish it after it has been transplanted.
What does this mean for us gardeners?

The first is to take the old-fashioned option where possible and sow seeds into a seed bed, transplanting the seeds with a clump of moist soil around the roots. Another way of achieving the same effect is to sow directly where the plants are to mature. This is not always possible, especially with plants that are tender or slow to grow. The seedlings must be sown and raised in potting compost and then transplanted at a later, suitable date. This is where I think it is worth taking care with the choice of compost.

The first thing is to avoid peat. As a growing medium peat has many virtues. It retains moisture well yet drains freely. It is cheap. But none of this justifies the loss of peat bogs caused by extraction for horticultural use. We are using peat at around 200 times the speed that it can reform and over 95% of British peat bogs, which are essential for a whole range of birds and plants, have been lost this century. It cannot ever be justified. Composted bark works very well in most cases. Composted bracken makes an excellent ericaceous alternative, as does composted pine needles. All three are widely available.

No potting compost can match the complexity and range of micro-organisms in the soil that are essential to long-term plant health. But you can try and make your potting compost as good as possible by mixing in extra goodness and improving the drainage and ease of root development. I start with a measure of my own garden soil. This should always come from your own garden as it will have its own specific ecosystem. Also keep a supply of well-sieved garden compost in a bag and add a shovel or two to each mix. Finally invest in some bags of horticultural grit and add this liberally to ensure good drainage and a free root-run for the growing plants.

There will be a few weeds that appear but they are very easy to remove. Most importantly your plants will be healthy and specifically adapted for your soil from the first day. It is important to always use fresh potting compost for every new planting as even though used compost might look perfectly good, most if not all of the nutrients will have been used up. Recycle the used compost by spreading it on a border or your compost heap.

 

 

 

 

 

November

Although October is conventionally the month of turning leaves and brilliant colour, it is increasingly November that lights the autumnal torch brightest – at least in the first half of the month. But that leafy flame is becoming daily more fragile and the leaves stream to the garden floor with every wintry gust of wind. All these fallen leaves are gold dust and should be collected every last one to make leafmould which makes superb potting compost and is the ideal soil improver for all woodland plants and bulbs.

If November begins in autumn it ends unambiguously in winter. The days become shockingly short and the chances of frost – or worse – are real enough to make the business of protecting and tidying the garden urgent, so it is a busy month, especially as bad weather can bring work to a juddering halt for days or even weeks at a time. There is ground to be dug, deciduous hedges, trees and shrubs to be planted, tulips to be got into the ground and pots and the borders to be cleared and put to bed for the winter.

But for the gardener all November work is dictated by the weather. If there is a cold, clear spell then the days can be fresh and invigorating and much of the work of setting the garden to rest at the end of the year can be completed. In hope of these days I cut down as little as possible so that the dying stems can catch light and frost as well as provide cover and the seeds some food for birds.

But however positive I try and be, November is a low time of the year for me. December is little better other than it culminates in Christmas, which is fun. The days draw in like a noose and the garden seems to slowly implode, losing all the things that gave it worth. The only answer to this is to tend it dearly, looking after it like an ailing friend both to honour its better days and to prepare for the inevitable recovery in the New Year.

FROST

Frost always arrives at Longmeadow before the end of November – in fact this year we had frost in September and a few quite sharp frosts – down to -5 – in October. But even in a mild year there is no avoiding November frosts. I gathered in all the tender plants before the end of last month and protected those too big to move with a layer of fleece. I have one greenhouse wrapped up on the inside with a layer of bubblewrap and the other has a heater to keep the temperature above 5 degrees. That is enough to keep even the tenderest plant alive and well despite icy winds and arctic frosts all around it.

I am always happy when the ground rings under my boots like iron and the soil is locked intractably into position. It means that the cold is really working its magic for the garden. So what is that magic? After all, it is an unlikely benefactor. Less than 10% of the world’s plants are resistant to it, although a good number of those make up the majority of our British garden plants. However, it is like a purgative for the garden. Fungi, slugs, snails, viruses, insects, mammals like rats, mice and moles, even weak and damaged plants, all get blasted by it. Where it does not kill it does at least slow down proliferation. Just as a healthy person always feels better for a short fast or an icy plunge, so the garden seems to be healthier for a good freeze.

As long as you keep moving and there is not a strong wind blowing it is also surprisingly pleasant weather to work in. Frosty days are ideal for winter pruning – not least because you can stand on the soil without causing too much damage. The truth is that at Longmeadow there are only two kinds of winter weather, cold and dry or cold and wet. Give me cold and dry every time.

FEEDING BIRDS

There is a huge pleasure to be had from watching birds at a bird table and by putting out daily food you can greatly increase the chance of survival for many and subsequent breeding success, especially if it is a very cold winter. Once you start to feed try and be as regular as possible with the supply, as the birds use up precious energy in coming to your bird table which is then wasted if it is bare. Also always put a saucer of water out for them to drink.

Obviously it helps for the food to be as calorific as possible and seeds, nuts and fat are best of all. Left-over pastry, bread and rice always get eaten fast and fruit is good, especially for blackbirds and thrushes. Grated cheese is popular as well as cooked (but not raw) potatoes. Avoid anything salty such as crisps, salted peanuts or bacon. I buy dried mealworms too which robins, tits and wrens gobble up greedily. If in doubt sunflower seeds and fatballs – preferably hanging so tits can land on them without being bullied away by more aggressive birds – are invariably popular. Another way of making sure that all the food does not get gobbled up by pigeons and starlings is to find an old log with lots of cracks and crevices and pour seed over it. The smaller birds will extract every last bit from the fissures that bigger ones cannot reach.

One of the great joys of winter-feeding birds is that you can place the bird table right outside a window so you get a really good sight of them. Have a bird book or app to hand so you can identify them and I always have a pair of binoculars ready too. You don’t have to be a gardener or twitcher to enjoy the diversity and richness of these hungry winter birds, many of which you would never otherwise see, and the more you find out about them, the more fascinating they become.

What to do in the garden this month:

PLANT TULIPS

November is tulip-planting time. This is, to my mind, the most important and best job of the month. It is actually something that can be done at any time between now and Christmas although the earlier they get into the ground the earlier they will flower. The essential thing with all tulips is to make sure that they have good drainage. This matters less if they are to be treated as annuals and dug up after they have flowered but even so they will be happier with plenty of grit or sand added to heavy soil. If they are to be permanent it is important to plant them as deep as you can – I have done so using a crowbar before now to make a hole 12 inches or more deep – and the deeper they are the stronger and straighter the stem will be.

If you are growing them in a container then drainage is easier and they do not have to be so deep and can also be planted in layers – a tulip lasagne, with an earlier variety such as ‘Orange Emperor’ planted deepest that will flower first, followed by a mid-season variety like ‘Negrita’ planted above it and then finally, in the top layer a late-season one such as ‘Queen of Night’.

LIFTING DAHLIAS

Frost reduce Dahlias to blackened tatters so it will be time to bring them in. However the tubers will not be harmed unless the ground freezes, so do not panic. Wait until the top has fully died back and then cut back the top growth to 6 inches whilst they are still in the ground and carefully dig up the tubers, removing as much soil as possible. Stand them upside down for a few days to drain any moisture from the hollow stems and to let the tubers dry a little and then store them in a tray or pot packed with old potting compost, vermiculite, sharpsand or sawdust.

The idea is to keep them cool but frost-free, dark and dry but not to let them dry out completely or else the tubers will shrivel. I lightly water mine after layering them into large pots or crates and then check them every month to see if any are mouldy or shrivelling up.

LEAVES

Keep gathering fallen leaves, mowing them, keeping them damp and storing in a bay or bin bags to make leafmould. Leaves decompose mostly by fungal action rather than bacterial which means that dry leaves can take an awful long time to turn into the lovely, friable, sweet-smelling soft material that true leafmould invariably becomes. So either gather leaves when they are wet or be prepared to dampen them with a good soaking before covering them up with the next layer.

It also helps a lot to chop them up. The easiest way to do this is to mow them which also gathers them up as you do it. Of course if the leaves are too wet they will clog the mower up so I try and sweep and rake them into a line when dry, run the mower over them and then give them a soak with the hose when they are in the special chicken wire-sided bay. If you don’t have room for a dedicated leaf bay then put the mown leaves into a black bin bag, punch a few drainage holes in the bottom, soak them and let it drain and then store it out of sight. This system works perfectly well. Either way the leaves will quietly turn into leafmould over the next six months without any further attention. You can also use them in Spring in a half-decomposed state, as a very good mulch around emerging plants.

PLANT TREES, HEDGES AND SHRUBS

Continue to plant deciduous wood material such as trees, hedges and shrubs. From the beginning of this month nurseries will be selling bare-root plants. Buying woody deciduous shrubs, hedging plants or trees ‘bare-root’ – ie straight from the ground and not in a container – tends to be much cheaper, better quality and offers a much wider choice. But these must be planted when dormant so this is becoming a job that needs doing urgently. Plants in pots can wait a little longer if necessary.

As soon as you receive the plants give them a good drink in a bucket of water and keep them moist until ready to plant. Prepare your planting hole, remembering that a wide hole is much better than a deep one, and do not let the roots dry out even for a minute as they will die back very quickly so keep them covered or soaking in a bucket of water until the very last minute. Plant firmly, keeping all the stem above soil level, stake if necessary, water well and then always mulch thickly.

PLANTING PAPERWHITES FOR XMAS

Paperwhite daffodils, Narcissi papyraceus, will be flowering for Christmas if you plant them at the beginning of November. Unlike most daffodils, it is native to the Mediterranean and does not require a period of vernalisation – or cold – to induce flowering. So plant the bulbs just beneath the surface of your compost in a container (ideally with drainage but a normal bowl can be used if you add some charcoal to keep the soil sweet) keep them watered but not soggy and place in a warm, light place. The bulbs will grow strongly and if indoors in the warmth flower in 4 weeks. To delay and prolong flowering keep them cool but frost-free.

HARDWOOD CUTTINGS.

Hardwood cuttings are easy to take, slow to grow roots but a remarkably straightforward way of creating new shrubs, bushes and even trees from existing favourites. Fruit bushes, roses, any flowering shrub or tree are ideal for this method of propagation. Unlike growing plants from seed, cuttings always ‘come true’ – in other words they are exactly like the parent plant so it is the best way of reproducing favourite plants as well as being almost totally trouble free and needing no extra equipment or shelter.

Cut a 12-24 inch length of straight stem the thickness of a pencil of this year’s growth, and divide it into lengths between 6 & 12 inches long. Cut straight across the bottom and at an angle at the top so you remember which way up to plant it and to provide an angle for water to run off.

Strip any remaining leaves from it so you have bare, straight stems and either place the cuttings so only one third is above soil level in a deep pot filled with very gritty compost (4 or 5 can fit into each pot) or outside in a narrow trench backfilled with gritty sand to ensure good drainage. Leave them until next autumn, watering well once a week and a good percentage will make young plants ready for potting up or planting straight out.

WASHING SLIPPERY PATHS

At this time of year brick and stone paths can be very slippery and dangerous. This is due to algae that grows on the surface, especially if wet and shaded and at this time of year they may stay wet and slippery for months. The best way to reduce the slipperiness is to wash off the algae with a pressure hose (which can be hired by the day). When this is done brush in sharpsand. If the path is brick or stone the porous surface will absorb some of the sand. A quicker – but still quite laborious – alternative is simply to work sand in with a stiff brush without the washing. Either way you have a very effective way of making a path safe without resorting to chemicals.