January in the Garden

After the excesses of the festive season we return to a less than bountiful time of the garden and the uncertain cost of living situation. I’ve often written about how good it is to have a period of extreme cold in the winter because of its cleansing effect and the subsequent reduction in the number of garden pests that are able to overwinter. At the time of writing we are having a cold snap and, to be honest, I’m hoping that we don’t have a protracted period of cold this winter when heating costs are already sky high and my lack of central heating, in a house with no double glazing or modern insulation, makes heating it tricky at the best of times.
Meanwhile, your garden is entering its deepest period of slumber and disturbing its peace with lots of noisy chainsawing, shredding and leaf blowing seems somewhat indecent. If the ground is really frozen then it does, at least, mean that walking on cultivated soil is less likely to lead to compaction than if it were wet but it also means that there’s not a lot of cultivating that you can do either. I like to at least ‘tickle’ over the soil, with a border fork, before doing anything, like applying organic mulch, so even that is out of the question if it’s frozen solid.
On the other hand, the physical properties of ice have a beneficial effect on opening up the soil structure without you having to lift a finger (or a fork). Water is not only the magical substance that is the secret to life on earth but it’s also a bit of a law unto itself when it comes to it’s behaviour on a molecular level. Unlike practically every other liquid in existence, water actually increases in volume, by about ten percent, when it turns into solid ice and this also has the side effect of making it less dense than liquid water—very important when it comes to ice forming on top of ponds etc.—without which overwintering would be very different for aquatic life.
The importance of increased volume, when it comes to relieving soil compaction, is that all the water held in the ground, near to the soil surface, will expand as it freezes and open up the soil structure on a microscopic level. If you have managed to fork over the soil, lifting out any compaction, before we start having deep frosts then the action of ice forming subsequently will further enhance the aeration effect of your digging efforts.
As I’ve mentioned before, getting air into your soil is just as important to plant health, at least at the soil surface, as any amount of watering or feeding. Plant roots need to be able to respire, breathe, and in order to do this they must have access to oxygen which can only enter the soil if the soil structure is sufficiently ‘open’ in order for gaseous exchange to take place between the atmosphere and the soil via voids within the soil. Frost action is one means by which these voids are made and maintained.
Frozen ground will temporarily put a stop to any bare root planting that you might have planned but, if you have a delivery of bare-rooted trees or hedging material, then it is important that it is temporarily heeled in to an area of spare ground if you can find a spot that is slightly sheltered and therefore not frozen solid. If you unpack your specimens and find that they are at all dry, ideally they will have been soaked before dispatch and then kept moist within their packing, then soak them in a bucket of water in a frost free space, garage etc., while you dig a trench in your favoured spot.
A slot deep and wide enough to cover the roots of your specimens will suffice and they can be inserted, at an angle if it helps, before spading the soil back over the roots so that they are completely covered. This is called ‘heeling in’ because the loose soil is then firmed down with the heel of your boot to ensure that the roots are in good contact with the damp soil and there is no way that any amount of wind will dislodge your bare-rooted plants while they wait to be planted in their final positions when the weather improves. It’s unlikely that the soil will be dry, at this time of year, but watering in will do no harm if you are in any doubt that the material my have dried out during transit.
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. The garden will be reduced to its bare bones during the depths of winter so assessing boundary hedges, walls, fences etc. might be a place to start.
The whole concept of the garden being an ‘outside room’ relies on having it divided up, wherever large enough, so that the whole garden is not revealed all at once. Even in these days of minimalist, open plan, living there are not many houses where you open the front door and the whole contents of the house, toilets, bedrooms, kitchens and all, are exposed to full view. The garden is the same; even if the only divisions you make are to screen off the compost bins, incinerator and shed, then at least that allows for your garden to maintain some air of mystery.
Larger gardens can be turned into more a magical mystery tour by means of screening, hedging, walls and fences so that there is a new vista to be enjoyed at every turn. Colour theming is something that used to be very popular, just look for images of the ‘White Garden’ at Sissinghurst Castle for inspiration, but you could theme areas of the garden on any design whim which takes your fancy; a life size menagerie of topiary animals would be a slightly more eccentric scheme if you were gifted some Niwaki topiary shears for Christmas.
Happy New Gardening Year!