January in the Garden – 2015

Even though days are lengthening, due to the increasing tilt of the northern hemisphere towards the warming rays of the sun, there is a huge inertia to overcome before your garden takes notice. Only the earliest of early spring bulbs will be making their appearances and chief among these are snowdrops. Bog standard Galanthus nivalis is as hardy as a very hardy thing, whereas the named cultivar ‘Magnet’ is a little less weather-proof but makes up for it by being bigger and showier—like a butterfly compared to a moth.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of named versions of the various snowdrop species with many variations created, either by accident or design, when they interbreed. I can see why galanthophiles get very excited by these myriad differences, they are beautiful flowers close-up, and there is certainly a place for them in the huge field that is horticulture. I have a few weird ones myself, left over from my days spent mixing with better gardeners than me, but their labels are long gone so I just know them as “the one with the very elongated petals” or “the one with yellow splodges”. I may get back into the wonderful world of snowdrops one day but, like my collection of fan heaters, it may just have been a phase I was going through!

If strong winter winds have flattened all those lovely herbaceous stems, which you carefully left for ‘stunning winter effects’, then now’s the time to concede defeat and sweep them all away. I tend to leave a stand of twiggy stems above ground level because I’m not keen on the ‘scorched earth’ look. There is, however, an argument stating that removing every trace of last year’s growth reduces the opportunity for pests and diseases to survive the winter thus helping to keep the garden ‘clean’.

Exposing the bare earth gives winter frosts a chance to break up any large clods of earth, left over from rough digging, and may also go some way to reducing the legion of pests which are left, at the soil surface, even after last year’s growth has been removed.

Having worked in countless gardens over the years I am convinced that soil compaction, usually by simply walking on the beds, is the most common reason for plants to under perform even when everything else has been provided for them. This is the reason why it’s important to wait for waterlogged soil to dry out before walking on it and to fork over any part of a border which has been trodden on.

Compaction is bad news because it is the destruction of the soil structure. By that I mean that a good structure relies upon there being open air pockets between the small soil particles. These are necessary to allow the plant roots to ‘breathe’. Just like the parts above ground, the living cells beneath the ground need oxygen in order to live and, because plants don’t have a ‘pumped’ circulatory system (they are ‘heartless’ things), this oxygen needs to be present in the soil surrounding the roots.

If the open structure of a healthy soil is squashed underfoot, crushing the air pockets, then the roots will not thrive and may actually become prone to rotting and die-back. Soils with a small particle size, generally clay soils, have a less airy structure to begin with so are most easily compacted whereas sandier and grittier soils have larger particles and correspondingly larger air pockets. The best way to improve the structure of soils prone to becoming airless is to dig in generous quantities of grit and coarse sand.

Humus, such as that found in well-rotted manure or garden compost, also helps to improve soil structure but, by its very nature, it breaks down over time so needs adding on a regular basis – hence an annual addition of a thick organic mulch goes hand in hand with keeping the soil structure healthy.

The reason I mention this now is that it would be an excellent ‘New Year’s Resolution’ to promise never to walk on waterlogged beds; add a thick surface mulch of organic matter; always ‘lift’ footprints out of the soil by following up any border work with a session of fork aeration.

I tend to remove compaction, working backwards to avoid walking on aerated soil, by plunging a fork into the ground vertically then levering it back. This lifts up the earth from underneath, to make room for air to enter, and should result in cracks in the soil surface to link the lower air pockets to atmospheric oxygen. Wiggling the fork around a bit, at the same time, increases the effect and makes larger tine holes for improved surface drainage.

The start of a New Year is symbolic and it’s a good time to have a think about how you used your garden in the year gone by and how you might be able to make improvements during the year ahead. There’s no time like the present, heavy frosts excepted, to get on with any tasks which involve major upheaval. Even if you can’t get on with these jobs yourself you can always plot things out on paper, in the warmth of your own home, before making a few ‘phone calls to find out what your grand designs might actually cost.

In my experience qualified garden constructors are becoming increasingly rare although many general tradesmen may tout themselves as ‘landscapers’. The best way to find a competent garden builder is to find a well constructed garden, knock on doors if you have to, then ask who made it.

Here’s to an aerated 2015……….