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ArticlesJanuary in the Garden

January in the Garden

At this time to year, with two-headed Janus in charge of the month, it’s natural to reflect on the past and also to consider the future. Looking back over 2015 the first thing that comes to mind is how quickly it was over—but that seems to be a function of my own advancing years, not time itself speeding up! What is certainly true is that no two years are ever the same so, even though the trend may be for ever increasing global temperatures, 2016 is just as likely to be completely different to 2015 as it is to be broadly similar.

Looking back at what worked well, and therefore is worth repeating, it is the veg garden which is uppermost in my thoughts. I can’t elaborate too much, that’s a whole ‘other’ column, but the biggest surprise for me was that I actually had success with cauliflowers. It turns out my glut was as a result of the strangely warm autumn, it was even featured on the local TV news, but too many cauliflowers are better than too few.

I shall be growing them again in 2016—might even need to increase the veg garden a bit seeing as they take up such a lot of room. Other than that it will be a case of ‘steady as she goes’ and having a good peruse of the seed catalogues to see if any new varieties might be worth trying alongside the ‘tried and tested’ favourites. The tomato variety ‘Ferline’ proved, again, to be the best performer in the greenhouse, whereas the newly offered ‘Nimbus’ let itself down by being overly prone to skin-splitting and not really having any particular advantages.

One success, in the ornamental garden, was reusing a lot of the tender bedding, chiefly Pelargoniums and Argyranthemums, which were dug up in autumn 2014 and overwintered in tiny pots under glass. If you analyse this practise, with the cold eye of an accountant, I’m sure it isn’t cost effective compared with composting the plants each year and buying in fresh specimens. The gardener in me, however, tells me it’s the right thing to do and achieves the result of having larger plants to plant out the following year which would be too expensive to buy each spring, even if they were readily available. Taking cuttings, of course, is necessary too to make up for winter losses and to guard against creeping senility in your mature stock plants.

On the subject of ‘creeping senility’, shrubs have a nasty habit of getting out of control while you’re otherwise engaged. Herbaceous plants have an obvious cycle of grow / flower / die-down, year in, year out, which makes it simple to know when to step in and intervene. In contrast, shrubs are always ‘there’. They get bigger and bigger, more and more congested, older and older, without a punctuation point to signpost when you can step in and manage their growth. Textbooks state, generally, that they need to be pruned ‘after flowering’, which is fair enough, but that’s usually when the garden is at its busiest and it’s easy to overlook.

My timely advice to you is to take a good look at your shrubs and assess whether they have become large, twiggy, oppressive or senile. This is aimed predominantly at those early to mid-summer flowering, deciduous, shrubs i.e. the deutzias, weigelas, philadelphuses of this world. These ubiquitous bloomers start off small but, quickly, while your back is turned, morph into overbearing monsters. During the winter they shed their cloak of foliage to reveal knobbly nether regions in all their twiggy glory. Now’s your chance to get in there. Choose your weapons; a good, sharp, pruning saw (hopefully you got one for Christmas), long armed loppers and some secateurs.

The text books will tell you that this is wrong because chopping bits off now will unavoidably mean that you are removing some of the branches which would otherwise bear flowers this summer. This is true when it comes to ‘annual’ maintenance but this operation is all about rejuvenation on the assumption that you, Dear reader, have been neglecting your wayward shrubs.

Now, back to the task in hand, the usual rules apply. First remove every last trace of dead or diseased wood—there may be lots if the shrub has never been tackled before. After that, aim to remove up to a third (more in severely neglected examples) of the total stems. Look for the oldest, dullest, thickest branches and trace them as far back as you can. If you cannot cut them off right at the base then take them to where another branch attaches—cutting the older stem flush to where the younger branch begins. What you want to avoid is leaving nasty ‘spurs’ of excess stem which will die back and risk introducing rot into the healthy tissue.

You’ll be amazed by just how much material you have removed, even if you stick to the ‘two thirds’ rule. The oldest stems tend to be the most massive, so the one third in number may actually account for ninety percent by volume; literally you are ‘decimating’ the plant. Why would you want to do this? Well, it is the constant removal of old wood which encourages shrubs to produce new shoots and it is the new, vigorous, stems which have the greatest flowering potential. New shoots may take a year or two to fulfil their full flowering potential, hence the advice to remove the oldest third each year.

Newly planted specimens will take a few years to build up a strong enough ‘head of steam’ to withstand an annual butchering and won’t need to be reduced in size while still growing into their allotted space. Of course, if you find the time to prune out the spent flowering stems, in the summer, that obviates the need for drastic winter rejuvenation—please see earlier paragraph.

That should keep you busy on the days when it is warm and dry enough to venture out into the garden. On all the other days there is plenty of ‘armchair gardening’ to be enjoyed. Here’s to a happy and blooming good New Year 😉

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