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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
GardeningJanuary in the Garden

January in the Garden

With the excesses of Christmas out of the way, there is a fitting air of sobriety in January which chimes with the bleakness of the winter weather. The shortest day has passed, so lengthening daylight hours provide something positive to hang on to, but it will take a couple of months for the warming effect of the weak winter sun to have much effect. Having said that, on dry, bright, days, it’s a joy to get outside and make the most of anything that is providing interest in the, stripped bare, garden bones.
Snowdrops are the most obvious candidate for blooming during the coldest weather and they are a ‘no-brainer’ in even the smallest garden. Due to the fact that they are a comparatively tiny bulb, liable to become desiccated if lifted and stored for autumn planting, they are usually recommended for planting ‘in the green’. This means that it’s worth making a note now, if you identify areas in your garden which are lacking, in order to seek out snowdrops offered ‘in the green’, in a couple of months time, at the point when they are dying down.
They are easy to send in the post, generally wrapped in damp newspaper, so searching for a nursery online is an option if no local supplier is apparent. It’s important to obtain them from a legitimate grower because there are still some rogues out there who might be tempted to profit from digging them up, from woods and hedgerows, where snowdrops have become naturalised.
In fact, they look their best when growing as huge drifts under woodland trees or shrubs. Flowering very early in the year, dying down before leaves reappear to close the canopy above, means that they can be added to almost any garden as an ‘under storey’ wherever there is bare soil beneath deciduous specimens. When growing them in large drifts, in naturalistic settings, the straightforward Galanthus nivalis, the non-improved species, is the most suitable and cost-effective type to plant.
Once you’ve established a decent population of your own then annual lifting and dividing of the biggest clumps, after they’ve flowered, is the quickest way to increase their number and the area of the drift. They will, naturally, seed themselves around so, even left to their own devices, the area they occupy will increase, slowly, over time.
‘Galanthophiles’, gardeners who collect special forms and varieties of snowdrop, get very excited about tiny differences that occur either naturally, or by deliberate breeding and selection, between different snowdrops. Over the years many named varieties have been selected so a quick search on the ‘www’ will yield plenty for you to choose from if you wish to acquire snowdrops with particular traits, such as larger flowers; broader foliage; degrees of doubleness etc.
I prefer to confine my ‘special’ snowdrops to terracotta pots in order that their special attributes can be more readily appreciated during the relatively fleeting moment that they are in full flower. This also has the advantage that they can be brought indoors, for a day or two, when at their best so that the weather cannot diminish them and their moment of peak perfection does not go unnoticed. The other advantage of growing them in pots is that they can be given extra special treatment, a little extra feeding while in leaf for example, and they are therefore quicker to multiply and increase in size and number. When sufficiently increased I may then liberate them into prime spots in the garden, safe in the knowledge that I still have the ‘insurance policy’, of keeping a number of them safely confined to a pot, just in case they become ‘lost’ in their garden position.
One area where ‘special’ snowdrops may well be most appreciated is underneath those particular shrubs which are grown for their colourful winter stems. Cornus species yield many of these in a range of hues including bright green, vivid yellow, fiery orange and strong red—another search of internet images will quickly identify varieties fitting each of those descriptions. For years I’ve relied on Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ to provide a really blazing display during the darkest winter months. It’s not as vigorous as the Cornus alba derived varieties which, I think, is an advantage as it’s less likely to get really huge and coarse in a garden situation.
The more vigorous dogwoods are invaluable to provide coloured stems in a mixed hedge, for example, or when used ‘en masse’ in naturalistic planting schemes, especially in boggy pond or stream margins. Once established it is important to cut them down in early spring, either completely or as pollards, in order to get the best stem colour because it’s the newest growth that has the brightest colour. Cutting them back completely, ‘stooling’, every year will weaken them, over time, if they are not also given a mulch, plus feed, during their late spring / summer growing season.
One last thought for January is that, being a ‘slow’ time of year, it’s worth looking back as well as forwards—inspired by the dual-faced god, Janus, from whom this month is traditionally assumed to have been named. One thing that I try to do, although I generally fail to record it properly, is to make a note of plants, or garden ideas, that crop up throughout the year but actually require seeds or plant to be acquired at a later date. One useful aspect of using ‘Instagram’, as a source of gardening inspiration, is that you can save images into a virtual ‘folder’ as an aide memoire.
I am resisting the urge to fill my garden with dahlias, which I’m sure have been on the ascendant due to their Instagram-friendly easiness, but I do save images of plants that have caught my attention and are most easily procured as seed which, by definition, needs to be actioned around now. A quick glance at my ‘App’ yields Dianthus superbus as a plant which caught my attention last year, when it was in flower, but needs to be grown from seed sown in February—hence NOW is the time to do something about obtaining the seed (and I note that ‘Chiltern Seeds’ offer it, along with many other specialities, so I’ll be adding it to my existing order from them).
The thought of compiling, then sending off, seed orders is, I think, a suitably positive note to conclude ‘January in the Garden’ given that it can be a particularly depressing month to cope with…

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