A new decade has begun and the shortest day of the year has passed so the hours of daylight will be on the increase. Plants will notice the lengthening days and subtly begin to react, thanks to complex hormonal processes and little understood tropisms, but as far as active gardening tasks are concerned it’s a quiet time of year.
As ever it pays to get all bare-rooted plants planted whenever soil and weather conditions allow. The autumn was very wet which may have held up a lot of the necessary lifting operations, that the supplying nurseries need to undertake before despatching orders, so there could be a backlog of orders even if the planting conditions are ideal.
As long as the ground is not totally waterlogged, or frozen solid, then it’s always better to plant bare-root plants rather than have them sitting around. Having said that, if an order does arrive at an inconvenient time, and you have no choice but to heel the plants in temporarily, there’s no need to panic as there are still a good three months of winter left in which to complete the task.
The ‘dormant season’ is the best time to undertake any major tree work and reorganising of the garden structure while it is laid bare. Despite having a basic chainsawing certificate, I am not a fan of attempting tree surgery myself—I’ve seen too many gardeners over the years who have fallen victim to self-inflicted chainsaw injuries. Anything that cannot be tackled by hand, it’s amazing how much can be achieved with a sharp pruning saw, is best left to a professional.
A qualified tree surgeon will know precisely how to fell a tree, or perform such operations as crown thinning, without damaging surrounding plants or property. In addition they will be insured for any mishaps which might occur and they should have all the necessary equipment required to tidy everything up afterwards and, if requested, log up all the timber suitable for firewood.
Planning ahead is the order of the day and, given that grass will not be actively growing, while average temperatures are below 7ºC or so, getting the mower, or any other garden machinery, serviced makes good sense. If you can tackle it yourself, while there’s no urgency, it will save a deal of money but I like the peace of mind afforded by relying on a professional garden machinery workshop to do the necessary work.
In total contrast to macho machinery maintenance; how about getting ahead by seed sowing (or seed ordering if you fancy a nice sit down, in front of the fire, surrounded by seed catalogues)? Plants which require a long growing season, especially the heat-loving bedding plants, need a helping hand to get them germinated, and therefore growing, at this cold time of year. Small quantities can be raised in a bright room. Mass sowings will require a lot more space, preferably a heated greenhouse, as the little plants soon take up a lot of room as they get potted on to larger and larger pots.
The over 20ºC required for germination can be provide in a heated propagator but once pricked out they still need heat, not to mention good light, if they are not to be subjected to a shock which could kill them or severely check their growth. It’s worth raising your own if you have the facilities, or want to grow varieties that are not widely available, but with the huge range now available as ‘plug plants’, or ‘garden ready’ after the frosts have passed, you may prefer to let the commercial suppliers carry the risk getting them from seed to small plant.
Less delicate, and therefore suited to almost any gardener, are sweet peas. These are so hardy that it’s possible to sow them in November and overwinter them, with a little protection, as young plants. That will get them off to a really early start but in reality you won’t lose out much by sowing them now. On a windowsill, or in glazed porch, they will make good size plants, ready for planting in their final garden positions, by the spring. The variety available from seed suppliers is huge, compared to those supplied as young plants in the spring, so it really is worth growing them yourself.
Sweet peas will require a structure, most easily erected using 8-10 foot bamboo canes and garden twine, so it’s worth considering where this can be accommodated before committing to growing them. On the subject of structures, in the same way that the denuded garden in winter exposes required tree and shrub maintenance, it’s also the best time to check on other structural elements like plant supports and ties.
The autumn winds, especially those that occurred before all the leaves were down, may have loosened or broken tree ties and the stakes that they are attached to. In some cases you may find that the supported specimen no longer needs to be attached to a stake, if it’s sufficiently well established, and the stake can be safely removed. Sometimes only the tie needs to be replaced, possibly with a stronger one, but if the specimen has grown to a size disproportionate to the orginal stake, very small plants may originally have been supplied with a bamboo cane, you may have to drive in a larger stake and attach a similarly ‘beefier’ plant tie.
It is important that the length of stake protruding above the point of attachment, of the tie to the stem of the plant, is kept to a minimum because, in very windy conditions, even a supported tree or shrub will sway around. If more than an inch or two of stake is left, above the attachment point, then there is a danger that the swaying of the stem will cause it to rub against the protruding stake and damage it. Similarly the plant tie needs to be tight enough to support the plant but not so tight that the stem is constricted.
Rubber tree ties are generally supplied with a block that needs to be placed between the stem, or trunk, of the tree / shrub and the stake that the tie is attached to. Rubbery, or expandable, ties are vital, never use wire or other ‘garotting’ material, so that the growing plant is not constricted in any way. Old tights are often recommended, as emergency ties if nothing else is available. If you have to use heavy gauge wire, such as when an established specimen needs to be pulled upright having been blown over, then thread the wire through a length of old hosepipe, where it is in contact with the trunk, so that it cannot cut into the bark or chafe against it.
That should be enough to ease you into the New Year. I think I’ll leave rose pruning, and the like, until next month at least—no point in freezing to death if you don’t have to!