January in the Garden
Jobs and tips for January in the garden, what's looking good, observations, plans.
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.
Whenever I mention this to people there's always one who says "do you have to be naked?" well it's not a requirement and I've never heard it mentioned, but if it makes you feel better and is not done in public view, I guess it can't hurt. Just make sure you have somewhere warm to go later, it can get cold on a January night.
Wassail the trees, that they may beare,
You many a plum and many a peare,
For more or less fruits they will bring
As you do give them a wassailing.
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.
Stay off the grass when it's frosty. It will recover if left to thaw out, but walking on it can damage many of the leaves. 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 greatest wonders.
Main tree and hedge planting time still.
Plants for Winter
Cold weather can be good for the garden;
It helps to kill overwintering pests such as aphids so they're not in a position of strength when it comes to attacking your plants in the spring.
It helps break up the soil, opening the structure.
It gives overwintering plants and animals a definite signal that it's still winter and to stay wrapped up until spring. In recent years plants have started to wake up or flower too early only to be set back by a frost later on. It can cause havoc with nesting birds too.
This is a good time to set about some heavy-duty pruning of deciduous trees and shrubs now that you can see the structure of the branches with the leaves gone. 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 (no pun intended, the name is coincidental!). This includes all cherries, plums other fruit with a single stone rather than many pips including 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.
Snow and frost damage - If you've had a lot of snow this winter the chances are that you may have trees or shrubs that have been damaged by it. The build up of the weight of snow can snap off branches leaving a large untidy open wound. Have a walk around the garden and if you have any such damage clean up the cut with a saw or secateurs, taking the broken stump closer to the trunk if possible. Disease is much less likely to be able to enter through a small clean cut than a large ragged tear. Sometimes the branches are hanging off where they are easy to see, if they have fallen completely though they aren't so obvious so look carefully for branches on the ground.
These are the stems of three Heliotropes that I was hoping to overwinter in a cold greenhouse. The frost froze the water in the stems and has lifted the bark away from the inner heartwood which can be seen as reddish in colour in the middle of the ice in these pictures. It would seem that liquid water was being carried up the stems for a while after they had frozen so resulting in large chunks of ice which completely killed the plants. These sections are around 6"/15cm tall.
Right that's it, my gardening year has come to a close. Time to start the next one.
Archive - selected parts of previous year's newsletters from this month
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 informed me I didn't need to. 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 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) 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, unless you walk there and camp).
What's up with the old curmudgeon now you may be thinking? Didn't get the Nice socks or games console 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. Prehistoric humans when they'd killed a few extra mammoths, put the odd leg aside for the future weighed down in a pond where they would naturally pickle under water without oxygen. One thing is certain, 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. 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.
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.
This 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, even at the weekends, there's Christmas to think about (if not actually do much about until the last minute) and things in general are slowing down and coming to a halt - apart from my maverick Delphinium that is.
Excited as we are to the concept of a White Christmas, green is the most common colour at Christmas time in England, that and the steely grey of the sky. The muted colours and the cold, damp weather with occasional frosts makes for a most melancholy time in the garden. I'm not much of a winter gardener but I did wander around yesterday after the frost taking a childish delight in poking the ice on top of the water butts and noting with satisfaction that it was too thick for me to easily break.
There were, I noted with further satisfaction some nice healthy, tight looking buds on the plum tree, preparing to burst forth with beautiful pale pink petals in a few months time. The first signs of spring flowering bulbs are starting to appear particularly when I brushed aside some of the remaining autumn leaves that had been blown into sheltered corners.
Then there were a few reminders of what I hadn't done, a limp and barely alive Osteospernum that grew very large and vigorously last summer. It was too big to dig up and bring under shelter, and I had no space for it. The intention was to cut most of it back and then cover it with a large mound of compost to try and protect it from the frosts and see if it would grow again next year. I think of these things in good time and then it just falls out of my brain at some point.
It might not actually be too late for the Osteospernum and in fact as I'm typing this it's sitting there casting admonishing glances at me every time I look out of the window. Right next to it are some forget-me-nots which I love. All have to do about them is pull them up when they start get too vigorous and widespread for their own good, why can't all plants be like that?
My view of the winter garden is that it should be just that - a view - out of a window. I quite like taking the dog for a walk even when it's grey and damp especially when the crows are flying around bare tree tops in a sort of Bruegelesque way. They remind me that there is still life around ready to get going again. But as for winter gardening, it's frequently a necessity rather than a pleasure, the saving grace is that it's a task that tends to pay far greater dividends later in the year, digging over heavy soil, planting large trees and shrubs for instance.
Why do we garden - Gardening makes us realise who we are and our place in the scheme of things. Many people have lives that are completely detached from the cycles of nature, and that is very unnatural.
Many have jobs where they are under pressure to perform and meet "mutually agreed targets" i.e. the boss says implicitly "you are expected to do this" and if you don't agree, you will be asked to "question your future direction". The only goals that I have ever had "ownership" of have been ones that have no input at all from anyone else. An analogy that springs to mind is "Here is a bucket of manure, we'd like you to "own" it, would you like to choose that the bucket be red, blue or another colour?". Well actually I choose that I don't have it at all.
Gardening reminds us that we can plan, we can do our best, we can even try to do the impossible, but ultimately we are working with nature and we are certainly not in control. Gardening reminds us most of all that we are human, not only are we working with nature, we are part of it. It comforts us that it's OK to be human and ourselves, not dancing to some-one else's tune that we can't even whistle. We have our disasters in the garden, but for every unexpected disaster, there's an unexpected success - "nature abhors a vacuum" and there will always be something that will succeed. The only secret I suppose is not to give up - as long as you keep trying, something will come of it, nothing and no-one is a total failure, there's always something somewhere that will work for you.
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