A New Year, A New Start

In January the full force of winter is with us and the weather can restrict gardening. Wet and frozen soil is difficult to dig and cultivation now can damage soil structure, so it’s a month to consider the year ahead, plan for summer and browse seed catalogues, working outside only when the days are more clement. It’s also a time to enjoy the more visible bird life, exposed by lack of leaves and the signs of the new years growth. By encouraging birds into your garden to feed and drink now, they will help reduce the numbers of insect pests, slugs and snails throughout the year.

A mild December such as the one we have had can have far reaching effects on gardens. Plants such as narcissi are confused by warm temperatures and can flower early, becoming vulnerable to colder weather in January or February. Fungi continue to emerge way beyond the traditional end of November. Insect pests in the form of eggs, pupae and overwintering adults are much more likely to survive, so checking for greenfly and other pests is necessary now and extra vigilance will be needed in the spring when numbers can rapidly increase.

In the garden

Common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis)

Common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis), Musteroiseau, CC BY-SA

Not all in the garden is bleak and grey. Winter bulbs are emerging. Snowdrops and winter aconites nod, luminous, amongst the fallen leaves. The common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis has narrow, bright green leaves and bell like white flowers but it is only one of a number of species and cultivars, in many flower sizes, heights and shapes that fascinate galanthophiles, the snowdrop enthusiasts. Winter aconites have buttercup yellow flowers, surrounded by a ruff of bright green stem leaves. Both quickly multiply in drifts in moist soil, can be scented and are beneficial for pollinators.

Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis)

Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis), Consultaplantas, CC BY-SA

The small Algerian iris, Iris unguicularis appears in January too, it has violet petals with white and yellow falls and is very fragrant. Christmas roses, Helleborus open, their subtle, sometimes flecked faces, often bent to the ground, turning them skywards reveals their beauty and their star burst centres. They look perfect amongst bulbs and grow well in heavy clay and partial shade.

Catkins on both hazel and alder open out, lengthening into pendulous lamb tails. Discrete, as they have no need to attract insects, they contain strings of tiny male flowers that dance in the wind, shaking out clouds of yellow pollen to fall in drifts on their female counterparts. Their graceful movements light up the branches of winter trees.

Christmas box (Sarcoccoca confusa)

Christmas box (Sarcoccoca confusa), Meneerke bloem, CC BY-SA

Shrubs with winter scent, ensnare the senses, snatching us from grey reality. Their flowers can be insignificant but with few winter pollinators they have to be intense and carry further to attract the active, available insects. Sarcoccoca confusa, Christmas box, is a relaxed, small, evergreen shrub with narrow, pointed, dark green leaves. The delicate, filigree, clusters of creamy white flowers with yellow tips seem to hide along the stems below the leaves, barely visible, but with a startlingly powerful aroma. Daphe bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’, is an upright, evergreen shrub with waxy, oval, mid green leaves and clusters of pink flowering heads, holding small, yellow tipped stamens within a tubular sheath of petals. It smells of roses. Lornicera x purpursii, winter honeysuckle, is a straggly, twiggy shrub. The white flowers appear before the blue green oval leaves, with pale yellow stamens twisting below small twirling white petals. Chimonanthus praecox, winter sweet, blooms on naked stems. Delicate lemon yellow, translucent petals hang like tiny lanterns from the branches giving off an intense fragrance.

Renovating apple and pear trees

Old, gnarled, pitted and hollowed apple and pear trees can still be productive. England has lost 60% of its small, traditional orchards since the 1950’s to changes in agriculture and housing development, though they provide a unique habitat for flora and fauna, bring together communities and link people and wildlife with culture and heritage.

Renovation and restoration of fruit trees are possible through pruning in stages over a number of years. The tree’s yield may not improve dramatically but the work may preserve old cultivars, benefit wildlife and retain structure in the garden or wider landscape. Any work involving large or heavy branches is risky and should be carried out by a qualified tree surgeon.

Pruning should be carried out when the tree is not in leaf, in winter, between November and February in dry, cold weather. The aim is to create an open goblet shaped structure by removing congested and crossing branches and improving the air circulation and light reaching all parts of the tree. Make the cuts just outside the collar where a stem meets the main branch or trunk, this is usually clearly visible as a bulge where the two are joined. Always cut back to the trunk, the main stem or an outward growing side branch.

On old, overgrown trees only prune 25% of the canopy in one year. Removing too much will result in the tree producing tall, upright shoots that will not crop and generally cause stress to the tree.

  1. Cut out dead, damaged and diseased branches.
  2. Remove lower branches that receive little light.
  3. Remove branches that cross or grow towards the centre.
  4. Remove long branches that don’t produce much fruit. Cut back to an upward and outward growing side branch that is at least 1/3 the diameter of removed branch.
  5. Thin out the canopy if necessary, to a structure with gaps between the main branches of around 60cm.

For trees that have an overgrown spur system, the gnarled branchlets that produce fruits, carry out these further steps:

  1. Thin out the spurs to reduce the number and increase the light levels reaching each one and so improving fruit size and quality.
  2. Thin out vegetation around the trunk to reduce competition, creating a clear circle around the base of 60-90cm.
  3. Mulch this with garden compost or well rotted stable manure but ensure the compost does not touch the trunk.

Take root cuttings

Japanese anemone (Anemone x hybrida)

Japanese anemone (Anemone x hybrida), ChickenFreak, Public Domain

Many herbaceous plants with thick fleshy roots can be propagated from root cuttings. These include bear’s breeches, Acanthus, poppy, Papaver, garden phlox, Phlox, mullein, Verbascum, Japanese anemone, Anemone x hybrida and sea holly, Eryngium.

Root cuttings can be taken any time from late autumn to mid winter when plants are dormant. Choose a vigorous plant, lift it from the soil and wash the roots. Select strong, pencil thick roots and cut them off close to the crown (where he stem and the root meet) making sure to leave plenty of root material on the parent. Replant the parent as soon as possible and firm in. Cut the root into 5-10 cm segments, with a horizontal cut at the upper end and a diagonal cut at the lower end, discard any thin pieces. Insert cuttings into pots filled with cuttings compost-half and half peat substitute and gritty sand, around 5cm apart and with the horizontal top surface just below the soil level. Cover the surface with grit, water lightly and put in a cold frame to develop. Plant individual cuttings in separate pots when they have developed a good root system and show signs of growth.

Coppicing and pollarding

Common hazel (Corylus avellana)

Common hazel (Corylus avellana), Nick, CC BY-SA

Coppicing is a traditional method of woodland management where a shrub or tree is cut back to just above ground level, allowing it to regenerate strong, straight, fresh growth from the base. Pollarding is a similar method where a tree is cut back to 2 or 3 metres above ground level, resulting in a strong, dense head of growth at that level. Traditionally cut branches were fed to livestock or used as fuel. Both practices keep plants smaller, provide shelter at lower levels and let more light into the understory. Coppiced hazel provides breeding grounds for butterflies such as the pearl-bordered fritillary, stakes for beans and pea sticks. Pollarded willow provides material for charcoal and basketry. Coppicing dogwoods will allow straight, colourful stems for a display next winter. Coppicing Indian bean tree, Catulpa, and forest pansy, Cercis Canadensis will encourage the growth of larger leaves.

Both practices are very simple. To coppice a shrub or small tree cut back all the stems to between 5-7.5 cm off the ground. To pollard a tree such as willow or lime it is traditional to choose a height and cut back to this each year, over time the place where the smaller twigs or branches grow from will swell into a club like shape. For other trees such as London plane or tulip tree a framework of branches is chosen and cut to the desired length, twiggy stems grow from these and the tree is cut back to this framework regularly.

Sow seeds of native plants that need cold to germinate

Beech tree on Long Farm Lane

Beech tree on Long Farm Lane, Richard Croft, CC BY-SA

Many native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants need a period of frost or ‘stratification’, before germinating. In the wild, the weathering of the seed coat by frost and rain, triggers the germination process, inducing the embryonic plant to start developing as the weather improves in the spring. This process can be recreated artificially by placing seeds in a moist plastic bag of compost in the fridge for 4-20 weeks before planting in seed compost.

To use the weather as the natural stratification process; fill pots with a half and half mix of compost and horticultural grit, water well then scatter the seeds on the surface. Smaller seeds can be left on the top but larger ones such as acorns will benefit from being pressed into the surface. Label and leave in a cold frame to germinate and pot on as they develop.

Oak, beech, spindle, hawthorn, hazel and wild cherry can all be sown now. Not all seeds will germinate, tradition says ‘One to sow, one to grow, one for the mouse and one for the crow.’

Plant deciduous hedges

Blackbird on hawthorn tree

Blackbird on hawthorn tree, David Hawgood, CC BY-SA

Deciduous hedges grown from bare root whips are cheap and quickly form an attractive boundary that can also provide food and habitat for insects and birds. Whips are twiggy growths with an established root system, around 60cm high. If you can’t plant straight away due to frozen or waterlogged soil, protect the root area by bundling the whips into a shallow hole and covering lightly with soil and sacking. This will prevent them drying out or being damaged by the frost.

As with all planting good soil preparation will encourage healthy growth. Dig a trench around one spade deep and 60-90cm wide and a little way in from the boundary as the hedge will grow outwards on both sides. Remove the roots of all perennial weeds. For a narrow hedge place plants in a single row 30-60cm apart, depending on the species. For a thicker hedge place plants in staggered rows at 45cm with individual plants in each row 60-90cm apart. Spread out the roots, trimming off any damaged sections. Back fill ensuring that the base of the stem where the roots begin to flare out is level with the top of the soil. Shake the plants while back filling and firm down to ensure there are no air pockets, check each plant is upright before the final tamping down. Water well if dry and mulch with bark chips or well-rotted stable manure.

Beech and hornbeam will provide more formal hedges and hold onto some of their brown leaves well into the winter. Hawthorn and blackthorn are the traditional stock hedges, when planted with a small percentage of other shrubs such as dog rose, spindle, guelder rose, wayfaring tree, hazel and privet they form a mixed native hedge with flowers, berries and fruits to enjoy from spring to autumn.

Gardening tasks in January

Woody Plants

  • Plant deciduous trees, shrubs and hedges when the soil is not too wet or frozen
  • Check the condition, ties and stakes on any newly planted trees and shrubs
  • If there is snow, shake it off trees and shrubs to prevent the extra weight bending and breaking branches and stems


  • Check the condition of any plants needing winter protection
  • Check the condition of stored tubers and remove any that are rotting
  • Take root cuttings from plants such as bear’s breeches, Acanthus, poppy, Papaver, garden phlox, Phlox, mullein, Verbascum, Japanese anemone, Anemone x hybrida, sea holly, Eryngium
  • Lift and divide herbaceous perennials in mild spells to increase stocks and revive tired clumps


  • Winter prune apples, pears, currants and gooseberries
  • Prune grape vines before the sap starts rising to prevent extensive ‘bleeding’
  • Force rhubarb as soon as shoots appear (cover with a tall container such as an old bin or chimney pot). This will give you long, tender, pale pink stems to eat
  • Press mistletoe berries into the bark of apple trees to propagate your own plants


  • Provide food and water for birds, make sure feeders and bird baths are cleaned regularly and clear of ice
  • Make a hole in icy ponds with a kettle of hot water to provide oxygen to the water and a place for mammals and birds to drink from. Don’t smash the ice as this can harm some pond living creatures
  • Build and put up nesting boxes so birds have a chance to inspect potential nesting sites

Sustainable Practices

  • Recycle your Christmas tree, shred the tree and use it as a mulch
  • Plan for the year ahead, check the gaps in the garden, think about what plants you might want, whether edible or ornamental, and order seeds
  • Wash, dry and stack your seed trays, pots and unused containers ready for the spring planting season
  • Leave fallen vegetation, branches, seed heads and leaves to provide winter habitat for as long as possible
  • Repair and treat timber structures, oil timber garden furniture

Relaxing reading

Rhapsody in Green

Charlotte Mendelson

A novelist with a “comically small town garden” who has turned her hand with enthusiasm and variable success to filling her patch with edible plants.

Buy >

Planting for Honeybees: The Grower’s Guide to Creating a Buzz

Sarah Wyndham Lewis

How to create forage for honeybees and other pollinators whether on a window sill or in large country garden.

Buy >

Things to see, places to go

New Years Day Birdwalk

Celebrate the New Year with a birding walk with the London Wildlife Trust at Woodberry Wetlands. The walk circumnavigates the reservoir to give views from all directions and takes place on a flat, easily navigable surface and at a comfortable pace to allow plenty of time for discussion and questions.


1 January 2019, 10am - 12pm


Coalhouse, Woodberry Wetlands, London N16 5HQ

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The Big Garden Birdwatch

This activity is run by the RSPB over 3 days in January. They invite people with gardens to spend a short time on one day counting the birds in their patch. This information helps monitor trends and helps understand how birds are faring in the UK. It also allows wildlife organisations to put in place measures to help wildlife when times are difficult.


26 - 28 January 2019


Your garden

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Heralding Spring Kokodama Making

Try making Kokodama or Japanese Moss Balls. The artful display of small plants tied in a moss ball and hung together as a ‘String Garden’.


26 January 2019, 11am - 4pm


Chelsea Physic Garden, 66 Royal Hospital Road, London SW3 4HS

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Catriona Andrews


Catriona is a landscape designer and environmental educator. Her work combines naturalistic planting and sustainable practices to create spaces that are sensitive to the environment and welcoming to wildlife. She designs private gardens, community gardens and public spaces and leads courses and workshops on garden and planting design and the environment.