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.
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.
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.
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.