New Year, New Growth
December has again been mild, wet and grey. On more sunny days the low light illuminates peeling barks and coloured winter stems bringing colour to the garden. On overcast days the grey of the sky and skeletal woody structures drains all colour from the landscape. These mild, wet Decembers can present problems. Mild weather restricts dormancy leaving plants vulnerable to cold snaps. Newly planted, shallow rooted trees are more vulnerable to being uprooted by winter storms in wet soil. Both weeds and pests survive and become more numerous in the spring after mild winters leaving plants at risk from competition and predation.
In January the full force of winter is with us and the weather can limit 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.
In the garden
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.
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’s 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.
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. Christmas box (Sarcoccoca confusa), 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. Daphne 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. Winter honeysuckle (Lornicera x purpursii), 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. Winter sweet (Chimonanthus praecox) blooms on naked stems. Delicate lemon yellow, translucent petals hang like tiny lanterns from the branches giving off an intense fragrance.
Living with heavy rainfall
Heavy rainfall, particularly in unban areas where a large percentage of the surface is covered in impermeable materials, can cause severe problems, overflowing sewers and flooding. Anyone with an outside space can transform it from grey to green, reducing the flood risks to their local area and benefitting wildlife. There are many practical steps that can be taken.
- Create a green roof. These act as sponges, soaking up rain, providing wildlife habitats, cooling urban areas and reducing run off. They can be retrofitted to bike sheds and bin cupboards as well as larger flat roofed areas. Any retrofitted shed, bin cupboard or roof will need to have enough support to carry the weight of soil, plants and water so the advice of a structural engineer may be necessary.
- Depave your yard or garden. In London an area 2.5 times the size of Hyde Park is paved over in private gardens every year. Depaving is the process of removing impermeable materials such as concrete, paving slabs or tarmac and replacing it with gravel, soil or grass to allow water to pass through and run off more slowly. Gravel is a cheap and easy to lay solution but will need weeding and fallen leaves will need to be removed each autumn. Reinforced cellular paving is a grid of recycled plastic cells that can be laid and filled with soil or gravel and sown with grass or flower seeds. It’s strong enough for both pedestrian and vehicle traffic and areas of heavy use can be filled with gravel adding a flowering bulb and meadow mix along side of the paths.
- Fit a water butt. This is an easy thing to do and stops clean rainwater from overwhelming the sewers. Saved rainwater is biologically much better to use on plants and in ponds. It also saves money on bills.
- Create a rain garden. A rain garden is a sunken area where rainwater from downpipes is diverted. A shallow basin filled with a soil and sand mix to improve drainage is planted with flood tolerant plants that can also survive dry weather. A raised edge holds water in a temporary pool but allows it to overflow in very heavy rain. The water will slowly sink into the ground beneath the rain garden and the plants will attract wildlife.
In January drifts of snowdrops can be seen in woodlands and on banks. Their delicate, bell like, white flowers and bright green leaves signal the transformation from the bleak winter to new life. The scientific name, Galanthus, means ‘milk flower’, though not originally a native plant, they are believed to have been introduced from Europe in the late 15th century, now there are over 20 naturalised species and over 1000 cultivars.
Galanthus nivalis is the most common species. It self-seeds and spreads quickly. Snowdrops grow best when planted ‘in the green’. This means when the plant has finished flowering but the leaves are still green. They can look a little sad at this point but will hopefully give a beautiful display the next year. Plant the clumps of bulbs at around 100cm deep or where there is an obvious change from white to green on the leaf stems, the white area is where the leaf has been underground and not photosynthesized. Clumps should be planted around 15cm apart, watered well and left to allow the leaves to die down, the bulbs will flower the following winter. They will spread slowly, join and colonise a wide area. After the first few years as the clumps expand, they can be lifted, divided and replanted, carpeting larger areas of ground each consecutive year.
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.
- Cut out dead, damaged and diseased branches.
- Remove lower branches that receive little light.
- Remove branches that cross or grow towards the centre.
- 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 the removed branch.
- 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:
- Thin out the spurs to reduce the number and increase the light levels reaching each one and so improving fruit size and quality.
- Thin out vegetation around the trunk to reduce competition, creating a clear circle around the base of 60-90cm.
- Mulch this with garden compost or well rotted stable manure but ensure the compost does not touch the trunk.
Take root cuttings
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 cut 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
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 of 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
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
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.
Hellebores including the Christmas Rose come into their own in winter, they bring interest to borders at this time of year, providing nectar for early flying pollinators and with some scent. The flowers are subtle, many are green, others whites, pinks and soft purples, often speckled. They hybridise freely in the garden so seedlings will not come true. They look beautiful alongside early flowering bulbs. Helleborus x hybridus is hardy and easy to grow, the plants have bold foliage that can screen the flowers so the leaves can be trimmed back in winter to expose the delicate, nodding petals. Most Hellebores grow well in light shade with a short period of sun. Helleborus foetidus can be grown in deeper shade. The plants thrive in moist soil, so when planting them in the garden dig in a generous amount of compost or well rotted stable manure around the planting hole. After planting mulch the area to help keep the soil damp and water regularly, particularly in the first years and in dry periods.
Hellebores can also be planted in containers. The plants will benefit from protection from frost and damp, they are best planted in a mix of soil based compost and perlite to improve drainage, placing the container in a dry, sheltered position near a wall will also help. Helleborus niger, Helleborus thibetanus and Helleborus lividus can be planted and displayed in pots during winter but prefer being transferred to a border in the spring when the flowers have died. Helleborus sternii and Helleborus ericsmthii thrive better if kept in pots throughout the year.
Gardening tasks in January
- Plant deciduous trees, shrubs and hedges when the soil is not too wet or frozen
- Move deciduous trees and shrubs also only when the soil is not too wet or frozen
- Renovate and prune deciduous trees and shrubs till the end of the dormant season
- Check the condition, ties and stakes on any newly planted trees and shrubs
- Check the ties on wall shrubs and climbers to protect them from wind damage
- Check box and holly for blight
- If there is snow, shake it off trees and shrubs to prevent the extra weight bending and breaking branches and stems
- Prune hedges leaving any berries for birds and small mammals
- Prune wisteria, cutting back shoots to 2-3 buds to encourage flowering and restrain growth
- Propagate berried trees and shrubs by planting the berries in pots now. They will need a period of cold frosty weather to break their dormancy and germinate.
- Take hardwood cuttings of ornamental shrubs and deciduous climbers: Abelia, Ribes, Chaenomeles, Cornus, Salix, Escallonia, Lonicera, Jasminum, Vitus and Parthenocissus can all be propagated from hardwood cuttings.
- 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 hybrid), and sea holly (Eryngium)
- Lift and divide herbaceous perennials in mild spells to increase stocks and revive tired clumps
- Plant bare root roses
- Trim the leaves of hellebores so the flowers are more visible
- Sow sweet peas for summer flowers
- Plant Lily bulbs in pots and borders
- 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. Fruit can be a good source of food for birds as well as nuts, seeds and fat balls
- 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
- Recycle your Christmas tree in a local authority recycling scheme or shred the tree and use it as a mulch, this will reduce it’s carbon footprint by 80%
- 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
- Clear any winter germinating weeds
- Repair and treat timber structures, oil timber garden furniture
Grow Fruit and Vegetables in Pots
Advice on growing fruit and vegetables in containers from the garden at Great Dixter with some delicious recipes thrown in.
The Garden Forager
Gardens contain many ornamental plants that are also edible or medicinal. You don’t need to scour hedgerows and woodlands when you have your own back yard.
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Things to see, places to go
Due to the continuing restrictions as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, many communal activities have been postponed or cancelled. These activities links are aimed at individuals and families at home.
London Natural History Society Virtual Talks: Trees and Fungi
David Humphries will be presenting on the perennial and annual fungi found on and around trees whilst undertaking tree inspections.
7 January 2021, 6.30 - 7.30pm
A Zoom Talk With Charles Dowding, The Guru of No Dig Gardening
The guru of no dig gardening, discussing soil health and vegetable growing.
9 January 2021, 2.30 - 4 pm
Online (free, donations welcome)
London Natural History Society Virtual Talks: An Introduction to Plant Galls
James Heal's talk will introduce plant galls & is aimed especially at beginners.
21 January 2021, 6.30 - 7.30pm
Pollinator Friendly Gardening Virtual Talk
Learn how to attract pollinators into your garden and what they need for each stage of their development.
28 January 2021, 7.30 - 9 pm