This Month - January
December started out very strangely for me, a Delphinium that I had cut down sometime in August in the front garden after it had flowered had responded with a new bunch of leaves and threw up a flower spike with the first flowers opening on the 1st of the month. Testament to the mild autumn we had. I watched it growing through November certain that it would get cut down by a frost, in fact I almost cut it down myself so the plant didn't waste too much unnecessary energy in producing something that I was convinced would never happen. The spike was a bit more sparsely clothed with flowers than normal, but it was quite splendid to have it well past the middle of the month and nearly half a year later than when it normally does its stuff.
December is probably the month where I do the least in the garden and spend the least amount of time thinking about it too. The days are at their shortest for one thing so I just don't see much of it, there's Christmas to think about - if not actually do much about until fairly late on and things in general are slowing down and coming to a halt - apart from my maverick Delphinium that is.
I hope you had a good Christmas and New Year celebration. There seems to be a movement every year of naysayers who try to stop people celebrating Christmas properly, or at least make them feel bad about it. Well if they want to give each other token gifts and sing carols while covered in sack-cloth and ashes with the occasional beating from a switch made of birch twigs (organically grown and gathered in a sustainable manner from old growth forest of course) then that's up to them and it's fine by me. Just as long as they don't parade their holier than thou attitude in front of me and expect me to join in. Have you ever had a gift from one of these people? probably not, Was it worth having if you did? almost definitely not. If they're young, they're probably poor and so are marginally excused (but I bet they get their parents to unsustainably do all sorts of stuff for them) and if they're not so young, they'll live in a house that's far bigger than they need and readily burn up the air miles to go on eco-friendly holidays (no such thing, apart from camping in the back garden).
What's up with the old curmudgeon now you may be thinking? Didn't get the Roboraptor or Xbox 360 he wanted? I had a great Christmas, a family affair where we sat around and enjoyed each others company, ate lots of all our favourite foods and gave each other gifts that we probably spent too much on and spent a lot of time thinking about and hunting down (that's because I'm a man - by contrast, my wife gathered hers). I think that these things are good and I commend them to the reader.
It's perfectly normal human behaviour to have a large feast that huge amounts of effort have gone into, to save resources through the good times for it and then in a relatively short and intense period enjoy all of those things while surrounded with people that you like being with. I bet prehistoric humans when they'd killed a few extra mammoths, put the odd leg aside in a pickling jar, or pureed and preserved some tree ferns or Ginkgo leaves for the festival of "Grunt" or "Ug-grunt" or whatever it was they called it. One thing is certain though, whenever humans can, they plan for and have large extravagant celebrations, marked by consumption of food and resources, and anyone who tries to make you feel bad about that is missing the point.
The yin to this yang is to do things for others as well - for charity if you like, I've had a standing order to the NSPCC for years. So while you're still feeling well rested, well fed and hopefully still retain some of that happy holiday glow, why not set up a regular payment to one of those causes you've always intended to help. Tell yourself you're putting away a metaphorical mammoth leg for others while the going is good see here.
Today is New Year's Eve, part of that no-mans-land between Christmas and New Years Day where you're not entirely certain what day of the week or date it is. In fact yesterday I woke up convinced that it was today until I found out that it clearly wasn't. I haven't been so pleased since the time I was about 14 and woke up one Saturday morning and started getting ready for school before my Mum told me I didn't have to go. So I had an extra free day and have spent much of it in the garden as it's mild if grey and dreary.
I planted the absolute last of the spring daffodil / narcissi bulbs, a bit late, but they should be alright, and then set about some pruning of deciduous trees and shrubs now that I can see the structure of the branches with the leaves gone. This is a pretty good time to do some heavy-duty pruning, almost all trees and shrubs can be cut back hard now fairly safely. Just watch for two things:
1/ Don't prune any members of the Prunus family. This includes all cherries, plums other fruit with a stone rather than a pip and hedging laurel. Pruning now can make them susceptible to a disease called "silver leaf" which can kill whole branches and not uncommonly the whole tree / shrub after a while. These are best pruned when in full growth in early to mid summer.
2/ Don't prune hard if there's likely to be a frost in the next couple of days before the plant has sealed off the wound. If frost gets into the open unsealed wound it can kill some of the living tissue and cause die-back or let disease in.
Having accumulated quite a pile of woody material I then had a very satisfactory bonfire to get rid of it, in fact I'm just off for a few minutes to poke it around and re-build it from the fallen material around the edges.
Right that's it, my gardening year has come to a close. Time to start the next one tomorrow.
Jobs / Tips
Don't forget to Wassail your fruit trees on January the 17th.
Wassailing was an annual custom in Britain where
fruit orchards were common right up to the early 20th century. It entails
celebrating good heath to the fruit trees and an encouragement to fruit well,
usually taking place early on in the New Year on the 17th of January (old
twelfth night). You go out and toast the trees and throw your toast over the
trunk of the largest tree. Dancing around them and generally making merry is
equally as effective.
Wassail the trees, that they
Robert Herrick1591 - 1674
The average person consumes about 9000 calories on Christmas day against an average daily requirement of 2000. So maybe we can all make a resolution to work it off in the large gym attached to our house where we keep the plants. Do you have any digging to do? Weeding? I weeded at the end of November thinking that that was it for a few months, I now notice with horror that's loads more have sprung up in the month since then, the mild weather and plentiful rain are to blame.
If you do summon up the energy to go out and dig, leave the clods of earth as they fall off the spade, don't bother breaking them up, the frosts will do that for you. Frost isn't all bad.
Make plans. Consider plants and planting. Put canes or a hose pipe across the garden to mark out planned beds, patios or other features. Then ignore it for a few days, look out of the window and change it all totally if necessary. Winter is a good time to prepare for the coming growing season. Take your time when deciding on your grand design and get it right before you start on it when the warmer weather and breaking buds tempt you beyond the confines of the fire-side (whether metaphorical or literal). Planning
If you've already decided - then get a patio or deck ordered and laid now. You'll certainly get it done quicker and probably also cheaper than later on. Make your mind up and order in March and the chances are you may not get to sit out until June. These areas extend the season of use of the garden. Lunch alfresco on a warm April day surrounded by the fresh green shoots of spring is a real delight. Hard surfaces
Stay off the grass when it frosty. It will recover if left to thaw out, but walking on it can damage many of the blades. I think of it in terms of having cold fingers, simple things like knocking on a door suddenly become incredibly painful, it's like that for the grass being walked on when frozen. Eldest son puts it terms of having your frozen ears flicked by the bigger boys when standing at the bus stop (would he wear a hat when we told him? - No).
Order seeds and plan what you'll grow from seed this year. I think of this as buying genes for the garden. Perfectly packaged and prepared for growth with all they need to get started. Seeds are natures own genetic technology. If you've never grown anything from seed before, it's one of gardening's main wonders.
Main tree and hedge planting time still. The winter months are the best time to plant any trees and hedging or other bare-rooted shrubs. These are bought bare-rooted from nurseries, this way they will be dormant, but have a more extensive root system than those grown in containers. They should be planted as soon as you can so they spend the minimum time out of the ground. This applies in particular to ornamental cultivars which seem to be less tolerant than most.
If you can't plant them straight away, then "heel them in". This means cover the roots with soil in a temporary position so that they don't rot or dry out. Don't be tempted to leave them in the bag or other wrapping even for a short time. If you haven't space to put them in the soil, then "planting" them in sharp sand (a couple of quid from a builders merchant for a 40kg bag) will do nearly as well (dries out quicker than soil). You could even do this in a bucket or other container as long as there are drainage holes in the bottom so the roots don't sit in water.
Why bother? Why not wait until it's a bit warmer and more pleasant and plant out of containers?
1/ Bare rooted trees and shrubs are cheaper, as little as half the price for trees and cheaper than this for shrubs though the range of available shrubs is smaller, so you can either save money or spend the same and get a much bigger plant.
2/ Planting now means that they get off to the best possible start in the spring. As soon as the plants wake up and start putting their roots out, they're already in your soil rather in a pot that will then planted in the soil later, one less jolt to the system.
So brave the elements and do it now! Make sure though that you add lots of organic matter to the soil when filling the planting hole and that you stake trees well.
We're in the middle of the dormant season now, but already thinking of the growing season to come. I often think how lucky we are to have such pronounced seasonal changes, it all helps to keep us fresh as well the garden.