Lots of gardeners, including Monty Don, refer to autumn being the start of the gardener's calendar - and I understand why. It is a busy time for splitting perennials and planning borders, planting bulbs, sowing autumn seed, and the start of preparation for the following year. But I can't help but get excited at the start of a new year.
The solstice has passed, and although the days may not feel any warmer, they are getting longer. January to me feels full of hope, promise and excitement of everything that is to come in the garden. A fresh start, a time to reconnect. The weather may not be perfect, but gardening in the winter months can still bring moments of solace and comfort- and there is plenty to do- so even if it's blooming cold, let's get out there and make a start!
Here are some jobs to get you started:
- Plant. If anyone bought you tulip bulbs for Christmas, don't worry, it's not too late to get them planted. As long as you do it soon you will still get away with it. If you are putting them straight in the ground then do it when it's not frosty. If your soil is wet it might be worth putting a handful of horticultural grit at the base of the hole to prevent rotting. As a general rule, place the bulb in a hole that is twice the depth of the bulb. You could also plant them into pots using a gritty compost. Use pot feet to keep the pot off the ground and help with drainage.
- Mulch. Before all the plants start to grow it is worth mulching your beds. At Hestercombe we certainly noticed a difference in the hot summer of 22 between the beds that we had mulched and those we hadn't. A good mulch not only feeds the soil, but can act as a weed suppressant, and also helps lock moisture into the soil. This is really useful for plants later on in the year. We use our own home made compost to mulch with. The compost is a mix of garden waste, wood chips, shredded paper from the offices and food waste, so it adds nutrients to the soil. No need to dig this in. Over time all the worms and microorganisms will do the work for you. If you don't have access to your own compost you could try some of the Somerset council waste from Viridor. It is heated to a high temperature to kill weed seed but this also means it isn't such a good source of nutrients. However it will help to keep the weeds down, trap moisture and make the bed look neat.
- Prune. There are a few pruning jobs to get on with too. The apple and pear trees can be pruned now whilst the tree is dormant, but leave stone fruits such as plums and cherries until the summer. Vines can also be pruned now. And then towards the end of February we usually start pruning all of our roses and the wisterias.
- Plan. Spend a cosy evening in front of the fire figuring out what seeds you might like to try growing. Seed sowing is still one of the cheapest ways to fill your garden with flowers and veg. You are bound to buy too many- we all do. But use your time to go through old packets of seeds. If you have seeds that you no longer want then share them with friends, or if you like, drop them into Hestercombe or post them to me , and I will repackage them to send to a charity called the Lemon Tree Trust. The Lemon Tree Trust encourages gardening within refugee camps and for displaced communities across the globe. They distribute the seed to groups to grow. It helps give people a sense of purpose, hope and home.
- Wildlife. It is very easy to get too tidy over the winter. There is tidying to do but do it in moderation. We will cut back any growth that has gone soggy to prevent it rotting the plant, but otherwise we will leave seed heads and last year's growth on the plant for as long as possible to provide shelter, habitat and a food source for wildlife. Don't be too keen to have a spotless tidy patch, the more diversity you can invite into your garden the better. Leave piles of wood as a habitat, as these will be used by slugs and snails and beetles, and in turn the frogs and toads will have a food source. Sweep up leaves by all means, but leave a little section in a corner. Also leaving food and water out for the birds in the winter months will encourage them to use your garden for food all year round and they will help to control garden pests. Lots of people will encourage double digging at this time of year to prepare your soil. I wouldn't bother. Give your back a rest! A top dress of mulch on the top will be much more beneficial for all the mycorrhizal fungi and microorganisms. The soil not only holds onto the nutrients that they need, but they all have microscopic pathways to pass information along. Shoving a big spade in the soil messes all of this communication up.
- Recycle. Wash all your pots ready for the spring to save buying new ones. We also use a household cream cleaner to clean off our plant labels ready to reuse.
- Enjoy. Most importantly, enjoy your garden in winter. Spend time in it when you can. I miss my garden as the nights draw in and it's too dark to enjoy after work, but I love reconnecting with it at the weekend and just doing a small task out in the fresh air. It is so good for you!