What a mild and dry winter we have had so far, bar a few days last week., and even that wasn’t bone-chillingly cold. The frost did put pay to a couple of things in the garden that were looking unseasonably healthy, but that may not be a bad thing. Plants need a dormant season to take a breather and some particularly like a cold snap to perform better the following year – plums and pears, to name but a few. And today’s rain is not unwelcome, unless of course you wanted to go out for a long walk. Give in and sit by the fire…..it’ll be too slippery anyway.
On the subject of wet soil, sitting by the fire is equally good – keep off the grass and beds as much as you can at the moment, otherwise it will, at best, show for the rest of the year or, at worst, do some damage to the soil structure. If you really have unavoidable jobs, lay down some boarding or other such protection which will spread your weight around and lessen the compacting effect. We have been planting trees in our respective plots – it is the perfect time for getting new trees and shrubs not requiring very good drainage in while the soil is damp and not too cold, or transplanting those unwanted or in the wrong place.
They then have a headstart when Spring arrives as they will have had a chance to start putting out their new roots. Consider staking trees if you are in an exposed or windy spot – although the advice these days from the gardening gnomes is not to stake, as a little rocking may help the new roots strengthen more quickly. The trees we have planted are deciduous so there is less of a tug if the wind blows hard, but evergreens may need that extra bit of support. Whether you are planting trees or shrubs, give the plant a good feed as you plant – a 50:50 mix of good soil and well-rooted manure in the planting hole, along with some bonemeal, will give your plants a real boost. If these two old boys can do it, so can you!
Even if we do get a cold snap, do not worry if, you like us, have lots of bulbs poking their heads through. Between us, we already have hyacinth, grape hyacinth (muscari), narcissi, a few brave gladioli and tulips, all pushing through because of the mild conditions. Bulbs are tough things, and even if we get a little snow and hail, leave them be. The snow can act as an insulator against freezing air, so don’t rush to brush it off.
By the way, mice seem to particularly like the flavour of shooting tulip bulbs – if you see any uprooted from pots or the ground, a pound to a penny that they are the culprits. If the bulb looks reasonably intact, simply replant it; it should continue to grow. Otherwise, mark it down to experience and leave the nibbled bulb around – hopefully they will keep munching on that one instead of sampling a new one. If you want to control the mice, we will leave it to your conscience about how you do that. All creatures great and small, and all that….
If you have been tardy in buying spring bulbs, convention says it is a little late to be planting them now. If you do see daffodils or tulips going cheap in February, don’t necessarily walk by if they are healthy bulbs – ie firm, and not with too big shoots on them. You should still get a lovely display from them this year, albeit a month or so later than those varieties should have flowered, and thereafter, they will slot back into their usual flowering time. Keep an eye out, there are lots of offers out there at the moment.
However, if there are none around, you can still buy ready potted bulbs to fill the gaps, and in fact, some, like snowdrops and bluebells are best planted when in growth. You can plant them in the ground or a more ornamental pot by removing them from their pot en masse – try not to disturb the roots too much, and they will perform better. Alternatively, you can simply stand the pot where you want some extra spring colour, under or in amongst shrubs and plant the bulbs after flowering.
One thing we touched upon last month was winter pruning of some your fruit trees and bushes. It’s not too late to do that yet, if you haven’t got round to it. Another category of pruning you can get on with now is your deciduous hedging, while it is leafless and dormant. If you are trying to create a well-tangled native hedge, you can be fairly imprecise about how you do it. There’s no need to take each twig back to the text book pruning point.
Remember though that winter pruning stimulates growth, so envisage what you are left with growing off in all the directions you have pruned back – if that leaves with with an agreeable feeling, them you’ve probably done it well. Once the hedge is mature, you might get away with using a hedge-trimmer, but beware an overly formal look. Wildlife likes it natural.
What it is absolutely NOT the right time of year to do though, is prune evergreens, whether that be hedges or individual shrubs. We have a more forgiving climate here in Cornwall, and the temptation is to rush out and hack back that shrub which has outgrown its allotted space yet again. Hold fast though, until we are sure as we can reasonably be that hard frosts are behind us, otherwise you will probably get some die back and damage. Been there, done that. The bay has recovered now, but it took a year of looking scraggy.
And if you haven’t already, by the end of this month, you should be thinking about buying and chitting your first and second early seed potatoes, to steal a march on the new season. Try and find somewhere with loose ones to give you the best choice of variety. Even if you only have a patio area, plant a couple in a deep pot and you won’t regret it. Spuds straight from the ground and grown with your own fair hand taste like manna.
Finally, even though it is firmly mid-winter by the calendar, do go into your own gardens, those open on a paid basis or garden centres, and enjoy what is in bloom at the moment. The sweet scents of daphne, sarcococca and winter honeysuckle have been wafting beautifully during the recent sunny patch, and even those unscented camellias and hellebores which are hitting us full in the face with their colour at the moment are well worth loitering by. It’s just a matter of time before they are joined by the witch hazels and then Spring really is on its way.
Sarah Daniel and Helen Robins, Pengelly Garden Centre