Following the plot
PUBLISHED: 12:19 29 December 2015 | UPDATED: 12:19 29 December 2015
Contrary to common opinion, says Charlie Hart, there is plenty to keep a gardener busy in midwinter
January is a great time of year for gardeners to plot. In my case I like to do this by the fire with a glass of something in one hand, a pen in the other and a pad of paper resting precariously on Seymour, our chocolate lab, with whom I am generally forced to share my armchair. This is where I lay out my campaign for the year – the list of vegetables I will attempt to grow, plants and seeds I must order and new schemes that need to be sketched out.
The garden has its midwinter delights too. In summer we might march straight past the humble flowers of a Viburnum and hardly notice them – but not now. We have two giant clumps (Viburnum tinus “Gwenllian”) in the middle of a lawn and they are the mainstay of our winter flower arranging, such as it is. This is also the month to stumble upon the unexpectedly heady fragrance of Christmas box (Sarcococca confusa).
The bare stems of dogwood (cornus) in winter can be green, orange or bright yellow, but my favorite ones are fiery red (Cornus alba “Sibirica”). The younger wood is the more vivid so the traditional advice is to cut them back hard in Spring (literally to one or two buds above the ground). If, like me, this frightens you, the other option is to cut half the stems hard in spring in the first year and the remainder the following year.
Now is the time to sow sweet peas indoors. I usually grow two or three varieties each year in bulk. Last year I grew Matucana and Winston Churchill. In retrospect this was a mistake because the bi-colour magenta and purple of the first clashed horribly with the rich scarlet of the second.
Matucana is interesting because it was the first sweet pea to come to Britain at the end of the 17th century, brought by Father Cupani a Sicilian monk. It remains one of the most fragranced. I will grow Matucana again this year.
Sweet peas don’t need an awful lot of heat to germinate and if you grow them for too long in the warm they will become leggy. So if you are growing them on a windowsill choose one in a room that is bright but cool. They like a little space for their roots and the cardboard inside of a loo role seems to work every bit as well as shop bought pots whilst also cutting down on expenditure.
I made willow wigwams for my sweat peas last year and to a rod they had rooted by the time the sweet peas were over. But the ease with which willow roots has an upside, and this is a good time of year to exploit it. Willow rods can be used to make living screens or tunnels; ideal for children’s play areas or to shield a vegetable or cutting patch. My constant challenge is to present the garden to our kids as altogether more appealing than the television. I have some willow that needs coppicing so this month my strategy revolves around the construction of a giant six-foot high living willow igloo.
Towards the end of this month it will be time to think about taking a snowdrop walk. Some people get very excited about snowdrops, paying hundreds of pounds for a single rare bulb. That’s fine of course, but for me its more about seeing thousands of them stretching off into the distance than the appeal of a particular subspecies. Seeing a vast carpet of snowdrops, or later a proper sea of bluebells, exactly as nature intended them, is one of those life enhancing experiences that should be indulged in by everyone who can, as often as possible.
Don’t forget wildlife
Birds can have a tough time finding food in January so feeding them is a great idea. The best place to site a bird table is directly outside the window you are most often next to (in my case a toss up between my study and the kitchen sink). We garden organically so our birds are an important part of our pest control team (in addition to; ladybirds, lacewings, ducks and me). As a result I have more bird tables than I dare admit - but I would feed them anyway because they are such fun to watch. My absolute favorites are the characterful long tailed tits, they look like flying Ping-Pong balls.
The garden remains largely asleep and all sensible creatures are hibernating. Part of the pleasure of this time of year is anticipation; in the same way that half the pleasure of a holiday is looking forward to it. Soon life will shudder back through the earth and we will be gardening in earnest again!