January in the Garden

Although the shortest day has passed, at our latitude the weakness of the winter sun takes a while to start warming up our climate. January and February are likely to be the months when winter really bites and getting on with gardening tasks may be limited to just the most benevolent periods of weather.
Here, in the south west, it rarely gets so cold that the ground is completely frozen, or snow covered, so activities like ground clearance and digging should still be feasible.
If you are really keen and organised you may already have made a start on planting bare-root trees and hedging. If not then you have until around the end of March (‘bud burst’) to plant things which are supplied as dormant and ‘bare-rooted’—obviously this excludes evergreen species which are generally supplied as potted plants.
If you planned ahead, before the end of September, you may have applied a non-persistent weedkiller, i.e. glyphosate, to the areas where you intend to plant your bare-rooted specimens. New trees and hedging plants will establish more quickly and successfully if any competing grass or weeds are removed first. If the ground hasn’t been cleared using a herbicide (I know some people are chemical-free) then stripping off the turf, or digging out any weeds, prior to inserting your bare-root specimens will be beneficial.
Bare-rooted material establishes best when obtained at a small size, rapidly catching up with the more ‘instant’ hedging which can look very tempting, and this is also a bonus when planting it. The compact root system lends itself to speedy planting by simply creating a spade deep slit, wobbling the spade back and forth to enlarge the slot, then inserting the tiny sapling into the opening you have made. Firm it in with your boot and protect with a cane and rabbit / deer guard as appropriate. For mass tree planting, or long lengths of new hedge, this allows a large number to be planted rapidly whenever there is a suitable weather window.
I am a little concerned that all the recent hullabaloo suggesting that ‘planting a tree will save the planet’, is largely greenwash but it certainly doesn’t do any harm. The danger is that suggesting that planting trees is a magic panacea, somehow offsetting any amount of greenhouse gas emissions, allows companies and individuals to avoid making the more painful changes that are absolutely necessary if we are to avoid climate calamity. I think that most people realise that it is our ridiculous, out of control, over consumption, in the developed world, that needs to be radically reduced. Niceties like tree planting and recycling the occasional bottle are something that we should be doing in addition to reining in our rampant consumerism!
Back to gardening: it’s a bit early yet to acquire them, but snowdrops are another garden stalwart that is best planted en masse and which are a most welcome sight at this time of year. They are generally supplied ‘in the green’, alive and not dried out, after they’ve finished flowering but before they die down completely. It’s worth looking out for gardens opening under the ‘National Gardens Scheme’ (https://ngs.org.uk), at this time of year, which promise a good show of snowdrops as they may also offer them as plants to buy.
There has been a resurgence of interest in ‘winter gardens’ of late and these are good to visit in order to get inspiration for adding stem and bark colour to your own garden. The sight of vermilion, or flaming orange, dogwood (Cornus) stems in the low winter light is especially uplifting at this comparatively flowerless time of year. Birch, cherry and willow are other genera which have plenty of species and varieties selected for bark / twig interest and which are worth seeking out in nurseries and arboretums while they are putting on a show.
Like choosing acers in the autumn, when you can actually see their true autumn leaf colour, if you want a specimen with a very specific attribute then it’s worth choosing it ‘in the flesh’. Winter scented shrubs are a case in point and, for me, smell is very subjective. What I might recommend, as having a lovely perfume, might be either too overpowering or too faint for your own sensibilities. For example, I love the scent of ‘Winter Box’, Sarcococca, but other gardeners find it just a bit too sickly sweet when grown in abundance.
When shopping for winter scented shrubs, Hamamelis (‘Witch Hazel’) is another good example, remember that there generally needs to be a degree of warmth in the air for the flower to produce any decent amount of perfume. Gently breathing on a bloom should warm it up enough to elicit a whiff of scent on days which are otherwise too chilly. Flower scent can vary greatly, between numerous named varieties, so sniffing one out for yourself is a fun way to spend a winter afternoon.
When the weather really isn’t pleasant enough to venture out then there’s always the seed catalogues, virtual or physical, to look at in order to plan your gardening New Year. Planning ahead is as good a place as ever to wind this up; I hope 2022 proves to be a productive year for you, whatever kind of gardening you indulge in.