When the Weather is so cold, it’s difficult to imagine Spring arriving with its green shoots and blossom. However it will return,so it is time to start garden planning for the year ahead.
I’m going to divide this guide into three sections: flowers, fruit and veg, and wildlife.
Having a wide variety of flowering plants in the garden will be attractive to lots of different wildlife. Pollinating insects attract birds and bats – as well as looking and smelling lovely both in the garden and the vase. If you have a sunny spot under cover, you can plant many of your annuals now. This can prove helpful for some varieties, which require a cold snap in order to germinate. I wouldn’t recommend planting outside for some time yet, though – it’s simply too cold. A greenhouse, porch, or sunny windowsill is ideal until the last frosts have come and gone – at which point you can freely sow your flower seeds outdoors in a well raked bed. I’ve saved enough seed to do both – hopefully this way I’ll have a good amount of phased growth over the summer and autumn. Many of the varieties I’m growing are edible, such as nasturtium and calendula, to add colour and flavour to salads. Both also attract greenfly, a useful trait when companion planted next to runner beans as they will flock to the flowers and hopefully, avoid your vegetables.
Bulbs sown in Autumn should be getting ready to poke their heads above the earth around now; if you didn’t get around to planting them out in the Autumn it’s not too late – buy varieties in flower and plant them where you want them – their flowering period might not be as long, but they’ll come back next year. It’s a good time to check any later-planting bulbs or tubers that you have stored, to make sure they’re not either starting to mould, or becoming too dry. Prevention is better than cure.
It's a good time to prune roses, as they are dormant right now. You can also plant roses and shrubs if the ground isn’t frozen. As for clearing the rest of the garden, I’d suggest leaving it as long as possible, as there will be many overwintering creatures taking advantage of the ground cover of leaf litter and other debris. It might not look wonderful, but we aren’t in the garden much at this time of year – leave it for another couple of months so that sleeping bees and other creatures have a chance to warm up. The only exception to this is if there are signs of disease on your plants; such as Hellebore Leaf Spot, which can show up on older Hellebore leaves and needs to be removed.
There are other practical jobs to undertake when planning the coming year; it’s a good time to clean out the greenhouse, browse seeds online, and plan your planting for the spring/summer season, and find out what gardening shows are being planned so you can get them in your diary. Garden tools will benefit from a clean and oil, if you didn’t already do this before storing them for winter.
Fruit and Vegetables
The focus for fruit trees in winter is pruning. The best time to do this is when there are no leaves on the tree and it’s in its dormant phase. Aim to remove no more than 10-20% of woody growth, and remember that wherever you prune will grow back thicker this year.
If you grow vegetables and are lucky enough to have a decent-sized vegetable patch, you’ll likely be rotating your crops. As you order your vegetable seed, plan out where to plant the year’s crops to optimise growth and avoid disease. Some guides will advise you dig over beds at this time of year; as a no-dig gardener I won’t be advising that – hopefully if you’re an established no-digger you’ll have mulched in Autumn, but if not you could add a layer of cardboard and then manure or home-made compost on top of that. You won’t be putting anything in the ground for another few months, but good preparation will be worth it further into the year.
If you were well prepared last season, you’ll have young broad beans and brassicas in the ground; if you haven’t already, protect them now with non-plastic jute netting from hungry birds. Cabbages might benefit from a feed; a high nitrogen option such as comfrey tea is ideal.
I have an established ‘crown’ of Rhubarb ‘Victoria’ that fruits from March through to November. It’s planted in partial shade, at the top of a small slope to avoid frost pockets (which could damage the young shoots). Rhubarb is so easy to grow, and freezes well – it’s worth giving some space to it. Ask around friends or at your local allotments – often someone will be splitting a crown and will be willing to part with it – perhaps for a small consideration. That way you’ll know that the plant will thrive in your local soil.
It can be a difficult time for the vegetable gardener, January, as the temptation is to get out there and get cracking, but there’s really not a lot that can be done regarding vegetable growth just yet. Order your seed potatoes, garlic, and onions, plan your planting, and protect what is already growing – and try to relax. The season will be in full flow before you know it.
Do you still have your Christmas tree lurking in the garden? Consider chopping off the boughs and stacking up at the back of a border to create a wildlife habitat. Add the logs to your log pile (if you don’t already have one, now is the time to start!) It will provide a valuable hibernation area for lots of creatures from woodlice to hedgehogs.
The best thing you can do at this time of year is as little as possible – do not weed or dig, rake or trim – allow the leaf litter to remain on the ground and the earth to stay undisturbed. There’s a massive community of invertebrates using all this cover to stay safe, fed and warm at the hardest time of year for all creatures. The few jobs that will help the wildlife are maintenance; check over and repair any old nesting boxes or bird tables; remove ice from bird baths on frozen days, and keep up a good supply of bird food – even if you have a garden planted for birds to feed, by this time of year natural food is scarce and they will appreciate some mealworms or fat balls. I have communities of starlings, blue tits, and sparrows that come to my garden feeders every day – it’s a real joy to watch them feed, nest, and raise their young in my garden.
The tall stems of last year’s poppies, aquilegia, and anemone might look like they need cutting down but again, wait – they are tiny apartments for little bugs. Wait until they have moved on before getting rid of these cosy little condos.
Overall, the key message this season is wait. Take your cues from nature. Wait, plan, prepare, but overall, remain inactive (with a cuppa and seed catalogue) until the middle of March.