While nature quietly sleeps, winter provides the perfect season to plan new projects and prepare your garden for the year ahead
Winter can be a frustrating time as plans for days off spent in the garden are few, and often spoilt by inclement weather; many hours are spent glaring out of rain-splattered windows, counting the weekends until the more reliable weather of spring.
Occasional clear, dry days can be used very profitably however and serve as a good form of exercise to clear out the cobwebs after a period of Christmas excess. After a hard year spent working in the garden, sometimes it is just nice to sit back, take stock and plan for the year ahead – but these are rainy day tasks or for the odd snowbound period; any opportunity to get in the garden is usually taken with relish.
Gardening in winter is more about what you don’t do rather than what you do (or want to do). The list of things not to do in frosty weather includes walking on lawns, digging soil and pruning trees or shrubs. If you didn’t complete tasks which are usually filed under ‘autumn clear up’, now is probably not the best time to start them.
Fallen leaves are best left as an insulating cover over bare soil and dormant plants, while the dead growth of ornamental grasses and herbaceous plants protect the growing points of the plants themselves. They also act as winter quarters for a number of hibernating mammals such as hedgehogs and amphibians such as frogs and toads, along with any number of useful invertebrates such as ground beetles and ladybirds. No doubt there will be a few less desirable lodgers such as slugs and snails seeking shelter but as this is the season of goodwill, it seems harsh to come on like Herod and persecute them now.
There are some jobs to be done now though. It is worth looking around the garden for any foliage that can be taken into the house and used as decoration. The virtues of holly and ivy are well known but many berried shrubs can look attractive at this time along with evergreen shrubs such as Pittosporum. Sprigs of conifer such as Lawson’s Cypress or Yew can look suitably festive and can be fashioned into wreaths or sprigs tucked behind pictures. It is always worth getting ahead with maintenance tasks such as the sharpening of tools and servicing of lawnmowers and garden machinery. Service centres will be annoyingly busy if you leave it until the first dry weekend of spring.
Similarly, it is a good idea to empty out the compost from old pots under trees and shrubs or into the compost heap and give the pots a good wash. Old terracotta pots will harbour a fine collection of spiders, slime and algae and will last much longer if kept clean and dry, ready for their first outing in spring or summer. It is also good practice to wash and stack plastic pots too before they end up blowing around yours and the neighbour’s garden in one of the winter storms.
Greenhouses too should not be left full of dry, mouldy tomato vines and chilli plants but should be cleared of dead material and windows cleaned and replaced if necessary. If they are to be used for overwintering tender plants such as fuchsias, dahlias and geraniums, it is worth putting them in before the first frosts and remembering to check up on them at intervals throughout winter in case pests and diseases take hold while you are distracted by too much Christmas cheer. They may even need watering on odd occasions as even the weak winter sunshine can raise the greenhouse temperature on a few bright days.
If the weather is not too frosty, it is worth getting on with some winter pruning. Fruit trees can be thinned out or brought back to a reasonable size if they have been left for a few years. Fruit bushes such as red currants, black currants and gooseberries should be thinned out to keep the plants productive and ensure easy access to the fruit. Deciduous hedges can be cut back but it is probably best to leave evergreens until spring or summer to avoid disturbing roosting birds.
Chopping wood is a good warming winter job – in fact it warms you twice; once in the sawing and splitting and again in the burning. If you have wood burning facilities, a good waterproof wood store is a good investment and another good winter task is its construction. In inner city smokeless zones, we can but dream of a weekend spent in a country pub sat around a roaring fire but a stack of wood in the fireplace at least has a homely feel and provides a refuge for spiders.
Another good warming task is the turning of the compost bin which will speed up the process of decomposition and make sweet smelling compost sooner. Material from one bin is turned into another adjacent one where it can be left to mature while the newly cleared bin can be filled with festive vegetable peelings, any available reindeer dung and some of the mountain of cardboard left over from the opening of presents and seasonal fare. If you don’t have a compost bin, now could be a good time to build one as the council annoyingly reduce their collections of green waste to once a month at a time of year when most pruning waste is being produced. Gardening is not all about lawn clippings!
If space allows, you could build a leaf mould bin which can be as simple as four posts surrounded by chicken wire. The resulting peaty leaf mould produced after a year or two is a precious commodity not available in shops or garden centres. Even a few bags full can be put behind a shed and will be usable after a year or two, or can be added to the compost heap in layers like lasagne at warmer times of year when soft green waste is more plentiful.
Kevin Revell is the Plant Area Manager at Caerphilly Garden Centre