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Winter sunshine - jobs for perfect winter days

Winter sunshine - jobs for perfect winter days

Cloud-free winter skies call us back into the garden, but what exactly should we be doing at this time of year? Trevor Bridge shares his plans for the season with us….

 

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Crisp, frosty mornings, clear air and blue skies tell us that we are now well and truly into winter and the dormant season is upon us. There is little to actually do in the garden but it is a good time to pull on your winter woollies, sit outside and enjoy the rays of the intense low winter sun.

If it is raining, a little relaxing armchair gardening in front of a warm fire is an excellent antidote for a wet day. Plan for the season ahead - work out your crop rotation system and decide which vegetables and flowers you would like to grow.

Are there any jobs that you didn’t have time for in the summer – putting up new fencing, a gate or a garden shed; do you need a new path or do existing ones need to be re-laid? Would you like a new compost bin? How about a cold frame to help raise your seedlings? Installing a water butt is a great idea at this time of year as it will fill with winter rains ready for spring. This is an opportune time to start those jobs so that things will be ready for the start of the growing season.

There are still a few outside jobs to complete:

Check your garden tools. Wash off soil, dry thoroughly then wipe some old oil over them to deter rust. Sharpen your knives, secateurs and hoes.

Remove pond pumps and filters and clean and store them away from winter frosts.

Prune apple and pears appropriate to the type of tree, except in periods of hard frost, and cut out and burn any dead, diseased or damaged branches (checking carefully for any sheltering wildlife first).

And finally, remember your wild birds. Ensure feeders are full and provide clean water at all times; thawing it with warm water when it freezes. They will brighten up your garden over the winter months and reward you by eating aphids, caterpillars, slugs and snails.

 

WHAT TO DO IN: DECEMBER & JANUARY:

VEGETABLES

During this quiet time in the vegetable garden don’t feel guilty if you can’t think of very much to do, however, you could be harvesting winter crops such as celery, chard, kale, leeks, parsnips and spinach. If you are picking Brussels sprouts, use those lower on the stems first as they are the most mature ones.

If you sow onion seeds, rather than sets, soon after Christmas, they should benefit from the longer growing period. This method is used by growers of show onions to attain large specimens and is worth trying to get an early crop for the kitchen. Sow in seed boxes in a greenhouse or a frost-free cold frame for planting outdoors in early April in their growing site.

Shallot sets can be planted in January, provided the weather is reasonably mild, and they should be ready to harvest by about July. Chefs love to use shallots because of their delicious, sweet, mild flavour and their firm texture.

Garlic is, of course, another member of the onion family and it is traditionally planted on the shortest day of the year and harvested on the longest. Another rule of thumb is to plant it before Christmas Day. These are good aide memoires as garlic needs a spell of cold weather to prepare itself physiologically (to initiate side buds that will swell to become cloves of garlic) and requires sunshine later in the growing season.

Remove any yellow leaves from winter brassicas to discourage disease. Stake and earth up tall brassicas to prevent wind rock.
Keep checking potatoes and other stored vegetables and remove any that are showing signs of disease or rot. Similarly, check apples and pears.

Keep a watch out for slugs.

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FLOWERS

Plants are dormant now and therefore it is the best time of year to plant bare root rose bushes, rosiers, and other shrubs. These are far cheaper to buy than pot grown plants. If the soil is wet and sticky or there is frost or snow, heel your plants in or keep them in a cool, frost-free place with straw around their roots and delay planting until conditions improve.

Prune established roses by shortening long growths to 75 cm and collect and burn any leaves that show signs of black spot. Support bushes loosened by winter winds and firm the soil around them. If you took any autumn cuttings, ensure they are firmly in the ground.
Continue to tidy up borders and remove or hoe in any weeds that appear, but still resist the temptation of a thorough spring clean. If you haven’t collected them for seeds, leave seed heads for the birds. If you have not yet done so, cut back herbaceous perennials that have died down, but leave some for wildlife. Prune any overhanging shrub or tree branches.

Now is a good time to plant drifts of lily-of-the-valley, muguet, in shady areas.

Continue to dig over heavy soil, providing that it is not wet and sticky, so that the winter frosts and rains break it down.

 

WINTER COLOUR

Now that our summer flowers and autumn colours have passed, many gardens can lack colour and interest.

However, many plants come into their own when the temperature drops and they will cheer up the
garden over the winter.

Evergreen shrubs can form a backdrop to other plants over summer, but as other plants fade they become an important part of the winter scene. Holly and Pyracantha, as well as having glossy evergreen leaves, produce colourful berries which have the added bonus of being attractive to birds. Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’ (formerly known as Senecio ‘Sunshine’) and Santolina chamaecyparissus are both from the Mediterranean and have masses of yellow flowers during summer with lovely silver leaves throughout winter. Spiky architectural Phormiums range from light green through pink to deep russet bronze and are good garden focal points.
Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ has subtly yellow variegated green leaves and is also prized for its stunningly scented purple-pink and white flowers in February.

Abeliophyllum distichum is a shrub commonly known as white forsythia due to its gorgeous forsythia-shaped fragrant white or pale pink flowers. These are borne in winter and spring on slender branches before its leaves appear in the spring. Forsythia itself is of course a well known shrub worth considering for its late winter or early spring bright yellow flowers on bare stems. Hamamelis mollis is another deciduous shrub that blooms in winter. It is slow growing, so ideal for a small garden, and its golden-yellow flowers are strongly fragrant.

Many deciduous shrubs have brightly coloured bark during the winter months. Rubus cockburnianus has attractive white stems whilst the Cornus or dogwood group contains plants with vivid red, yellow, purple-black and lime-green stems.

Topiary provides superb formal winter interest. This can be in the form of clipped specimens of a wide range of shapes and sizes or manicured hedges alongside paths and borders. Just a couple of spheres or pyramids can provide an evergreen focal point whilst there is little else around.

Hellebores are renowned for their white, cream, pink, purple or greenish blooms as winter turns to spring and before there is much other flower colour about. Winter Aconites,

Eranthis hyemalis, produce masses of bright yellow flowers and are ideal in the dappled shade of deciduous trees or naturalised in informal grass areas.

It is important to try not to overdo the winter effect as too many evergreens can become overbearing or monotonous. Just aim to create small pockets of interest to see your garden through the colder months.

 

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GOOD, BETTER, BEST: GARDEN GATES

Garden gates can be practical, ornamental or even romantic. They may be inviting to entice people in, or defensive to keep the world out; they can be open or solid, wooden or metal. They range from the grand wrought-iron gates of a chateau to the charm of a small wicket gate surrounded by cottage garden flowers.

 

GOOD: RECLAIMED TIMBER GATE

Timber gates can be constructed from a wide variety of reclaimed wood. The most common consist of a stout, rectangular frame, often with a diagonal brace, supporting vertical boards, either close butted or open. The boards can be rustic chestnut pales, old floor boarding, pallets or any other suitable timber that is to hand. Depending on your carpentry skills and your requirements, you can use mortise and tenon joints, screws or simple nails. Another idea is to source second-hand gates from a bric-a-brac or reclamation yard, another good way of recycling. The wood can be left untreated, but for a longer life it can be painted or treated with an eco-friendly preservative.

 

BETTER: NEW TIMBER GATE

A wide range of timber gates of all shapes and sizes can be purchased at fencing suppliers, brico merchants or garden centres. As with many items nowadays they can be ordered on line and delivered to your door. When choosing your gate, consider the site, the surrounds and the use for which the gate is to be put to. In rural settings a simple trellis gate can form the entrance to a potager or a vine-covered arch gate can set off a front garden. In towns, solid, boarded timber gates with perhaps decorative post caps could be very effective.

 

BEST: WROUGHT IRON GATE

Wrought iron gates can be highly decorative magnificent affairs between ornamental stone piers at the front of a grand residence or simple garden gates with perhaps some understated but attractive scroll work. Your situation will of course dictate your choice, but gates suitable for a Loire chateau will look out of place in a less imposing location. It is common to paint metal gates black, although white-painted ones give a cottage garden effect. A good range can be found at specialist suppliers, garden centres and brico yards.

 

 

Trevor's tips


• Lawn mowers Now is a good time to service lawn mowers, especially if you use a professional repair shop. They will be far quieter now than in the midst of the mowing season.

• Tree stakes Check tree stakes to ensure they are not loose in the ground and tighten any loose ties.

• Tender plants Move tender plants in their containers to overwinter in a cool greenhouse or cold frame.

• Raspberries Plant bare-root raspberries and other soft cane fruit directly into the ground, provided it is not wet or frosty.

• Patio pots Stand patio pots on feet so that they are slightly raised from the ground to improve drainage and reduce water-logging.

• Soil protection Especially at this time of year when the ground is often wet, stand on a plank or a board when working on borders to avoid compaction of the soil.