There’s been a bit of a cold snap recently which doesn’t suit my ‘luxury’ hound (being half Italian Greyhound he’s prone to shivering) but is pretty good for getting on with things in the garden and properly cold weather is exactly what we should be getting around now. I remember that in the warmer, wetter, winter last year I got behind with my tasks because there were so many days when I couldn’t get onto the soil.
To a certain extent decently cold temperatures reduce the number of pests overwintering in the myriad cracks and crevices that a garden provides. I help this along by clearing up the leaf litter and associated detritus that gets trapped amongst the stems in the borders. This tends to coincide with the removal of leaves from winter flowering hellebores and Epimedium varieties where the flowers only show if last year’s foliage is removed.
The downside to this is that it removes one of the food sources for the birdlife that frequent the garden but at least it’s preferable to doing a complete ‘bare earth’ border annihilation in the autumn. It’s funny how gardening practices evolve over time. When I worked in large country house gardens, as a student, it was common for the ‘herbaceous border’ to be completely cleaned bare before winter.
That was the tradition in gardens which covered many acres because it was possible to develop different areas of the garden to peak at different times and the owners merely planned their promenades avoiding the sections which were not at their best. For most people that is a luxury they cannot afford so having areas of the garden which are just flat earth, for half the year, doesn’t make sense. Also, very few domestic scale gardens have strictly ‘herbaceous’ borders these days. Instead they have ‘mixed’ planting schemes with trees, shrubs, bulbs, evergreens and every other sort of plant material, including herbaceous perennials, jostling ‘cheek by jowl’.
Having said that, now’s the time to clean up the borders if weather conditions allow. It’s not a good idea to be tramping all over the soil when it is very wet, due to the damage you will do to the soil structure by compacting it, and you won’t be able to work it if it’s frozen solid. During dry, but not completely frosty, spells you can go through the borders cutting down dead stems and removing last year’s decaying leaves from herbaceous plants and weeding out anything that you don’t want in the border—not just ‘proper’ weeds but the self-sown progeny of ornamental plants which can begin to take over; forget-me-nots for example.
I’m at a bit of a dilemma here because usually I would try to do all my tidying, chopping and weeding along with a gentle forking, feeding and mulching. I’ll still do that towards the end of the month, when spring is a little closer, but I’d not want to add any fertiliser, even the comparatively low nitrogen ‘fish, blood and bone’, when it’s not going to do the plants any good. It’s best to ‘play it by ear’ and add the feed, followed by your chosen mulch (garden compost in my case) if you know you won’t get another chance or if the weather is mild and plant growth is underway. If not used by growing plants, then any feed you add now will get washed though the soil before it can be utilised for plant growth.
A very timely task is the pruning of wisteria to encourage bigger and better blooms. Ideally you will have shortened all the long, whippy, growths towards the end of the summer to prevent them from being ripped off in autumn gales. These can now be shortened to just a couple of buds, or leaf joints if no buds are visible yet. This does mean that you are removing a fair proportion of flower buds, remember “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, but the ones left behind will produce bigger and better blooms which is, with a showy plant like wisteria, the name of the game. Regular pruning keeps this vigorous climber within bounds and under control That’s what gardening is all about; nature “whipped into shape”.
As I write, I am rather behind with planting bare-rooted trees and hedging. In fact, I haven’t even ordered what I intend to plant—mostly ‘wood fuel mix’ trees to expand my ‘mini wood’. Unless spring starts with a heatwave you can assume it’s safe to plant bare-rooted material up until the end of March so I’ll hold off panicking just yet. I can’t resist bare-root plants because they establish quickly and are the cheapest way of obtaining common varieties of deciduous trees and hedging plants.
Due to the ease of sending bare-root plants through the post there is healthy competition amongst suppliers so it’s sensible to do an online search to see who offers exactly what you want and for the best price. Having said that, it’s worth checking to see if you have a local supplier because collecting in person is always preferable. It saves on subjecting your chosen specimens to an unnecessary postal experience and you may get a cheaper price without the cost of delivery. You’ll need to check with the local supplier, don’t just turn up, as most plants are lifted ‘to order’ and may not be available for days, possibly weeks, after your initial enquiry. The nursery won’t be able to dig up any stock in very wet or completely freezing weather.
On a different tack, after last year’s successes with growing random perennials, half-hardy and tender annuals from seed, I must get going with some more for this year. I started some too late so, this year, I’ll be sowing as many as possible now. Tricky when they’ll be vying for space in the greenhouse with veg seedlings, the overwintering tender perennials plus the cases of freesias and pots of arums being forced for early cut flowers. The sooner the weather warms up enough to decant a lot of the smaller pots into the cold frames the better!