The Garden in January
As I sit down to write this blog in the last days of the old year, one which we are unlikely to forget! I am doing my best to find some signs that the garden is beginning to come back to life and is attempting to welcome in the new year which we have all been looking forward to. Unfortunately, after a very wet three months (I have recorded over 20 inches of rain in our garden in that time) and with Storm Bella roaring through on Boxing Day night even I have to admit that I am struggling somewhat! However, my books tell me that there are lots of plants to enjoy in January, plenty of jobs to be getting on with and that it can be regarded as the most optimistic month! I’m not sure about the last part but I will do my best to find some glimmers of hope and to give you some ideas about plants which you might like to add to your own winter garden.
There are signs when the weather allows you to have a good look around the garden that the early flowering bulbs are beginning to show their heads above ground. Perhaps in some more sheltered and warmer gardens the first Snowdrops (Galanthus) and Winter Aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) might even be showing some flower buds but most gardens including our own will most likely have to wait until the second half of the month to witness this when hopefully they will be joined by the first signs of others bulbous plants such as the Narcissi. I am always lifted and pleasantly surprised to see again where bulbs have been planted in the past as it is very easy to forget where they are. If you do plan to add more bulbs next autumn it is always a good idea to mark in some way the positions of your existing bulbs. There is nothing more annoying when planting new bulbs than finding that you are digging up and often damaging existing ones! This is also a good time to clear away any old vegetation that is covering emerging bulbs. This will give them more light and you will be able to see them better as they grow, bud and flower. January is also a good time to remove old, damaged leaves from Hellebores which hopefully will also be showing new growth and even flower buds at some stage in the month so that they too can be seen at their best. I find that their old leaves often have black marks from a fungal disease so these are best disposed of in the green waste or fire rather than the compost heap. Hellebores really are excellent late winter and spring plants and as they are of a woodland origin are particularly good for shady areas at the bases of trees and large shrubs. They all have delightful, saucer or cup-shaped flowers in a variety of colours from white, through cream to pink and purple, some are even green and others spotted. Different species and cultivars also flower at different times so by choosing carefully you can have blooms from late-winter well into spring. We tend to go for the Helleborus x hybridus group of which there are many cultivars, some of which even have yellow flowers. Also very good is H. orientalis (the Lenten Rose) which flower from mid-winter into mid and even late-spring. If you have a particularly shady spot then H. foetidus (the Stinking Hellebore) is a really good choice despite its name. It is only the leaves when crushed that produce an unpleasant smell, the flowers can be quite pleasantly scented and are green, pendant and bell-shaped. Probably best known of course is H. niger (the Christmas Rose) which as its name suggests is an earlier flowerer but not always as early as Christmas! Despite its name ‘niger’ ie. ‘black’ which actually refers to the root, its flowers are white or cream, sometimes pink-flushed with greenish-white centres. As for most plants at the bases of trees and shrubs it is always a good idea to add plenty of organic matter at planting time as well as an annual mulch so that the soil can retain moisture during dry spells.
Apart from the emerging bulbs and the first signs of growth on the Hellebores it is to the shrubs and trees that I shall be looking for other signs of what is to come. The buds on the Witch Hazel (Hamamelis) are now really prominent and any day I expect to see the first few spidery, yellow flowers burst forth. The same is true of the Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas) which is full of its own distinctive rounded flower buds.
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ Cornus mas
Also in the front garden the Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata) is showing its swelling, almost furry flower buds which offer so much promise. The same can also be said of the Christmas Box (Sarcococca) whose buds are now nearly open and I am keenly awaiting the wonderful scent which they will soon release.
Sarcococca ‘Purple Stem’ Leycesteria formosa
Our Camellia x williamsii ‘Anticipation’ is also full of very large flower buds which will open when ready but I hope not too early as the blooms can get damaged by heavy rain and sharp frosts. At this point I have to mention that I am not the only one who has been keeping an eye on the swelling buds, our local Bullfinches which we occasionally see in the garden are watching them too! We have been delighted to see them enjoying the last of the berries on our Pheasant Berry bush (Leycesteria formosa) but less pleased to see them eating buds on the ornamental Cherry and a Forsythia shrub! However, they are such beautiful birds that I think we can spare them a few buds here and there. This idea that we share our gardens with our local wildlife is one that over this year in particular has given us all much pleasure and also food for thought. We received for Christmas from a very good friend of ours Monty Don’s latest book- “My Garden World” (ISBN 978-1-473-66655-9) in which he takes a month by month look at his gardens from a wildlife rather than a plant perspective. I have to say having only quickly scanned through, it looks to be a fascinating read and I can’t wait to get into it properly. As he writes on the back cover, “if, in our own back yards we can preserve and treasure our natural world, then we can make this planet a better place, not just for ourselves but for every living creature”- hear, hear to that I say!
As far as flowers are concerned as I write a few days before the start of the new year I must admit that they are in short supply but not completely absent. The Mahonia x media is still in flower and will certainly take us into the first part of January. As the plant is right outside our dining room window I see it each time I look out and over the last few weeks have been intrigued by a Blue Tit apparently pecking at the tiny yellow flowers. I assume that it is after the pollen grains or even some nectar but I can’t be certain. I only ever see one bird at a time and am therefore wondering if it is just the one bird visiting several times a day. Do you see what I mean about taking pleasure from the garden wildlife? The Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’ is also still producing its clusters of pink, tubular and highly scented flowers and I expect this to go on flowering right through the month and beyond. Also at the base of the hedge I have noticed a few blue, 5-petalled flowers on the evergreen Vinca major (Greater Periwinkle). It is not really a winter flowerer but our plant seems to produce a few blooms at almost any time of year. Vinca has a bit of a reputation for being invasive which is certainly true for some species and cultivars but it is a good, ground cover plant for difficult areas such as woodland edges, shady banks and hedge bottoms. We let ours grow around and through a large Hypericum and beneath a Holly (Ilex) and Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). Vinca minor (the Lesser Periwinkle) is much less invasive and can be easily managed and comes in a whole range of colours from white through sky blue to violet or purple-blue. Some even have variegated green and cream leaves as an added attraction. The Jasminum nudiflorum (Winter Jasmine) is also still in flower and there are also still a few flowers on two of our Parahebes. Beyond these I am struggling to find any other flowers and even have to admit that my Hardy Geraniums have let me down this month!
If you are looking around your own garden in January and are wishing that you had a little more interest to catch the eye and enjoy then you might take a leaf out of the book of the writer of an article in this January’s edition of the Royal Horticultural Society’s magazine “The Garden”. The lady in question, Kathy Brown, gardens in Bedfordshire and began a gardening career when she and a friend started a business planting stylish window boxes and containers for clients in north London. Some 20 years ago a photographer wanted to take images of winter plants but all she could offer in her own garden was Holly, Ivy and some conifers. Since then she has been passionate about creating interest in the winter garden and although she gardens on a scale that is a little larger than most her favourite plants and ideas can be used to make an impact in any garden. Firstly, the structure or ‘bones of the garden’ are for her very important winter features. Hedges form boundaries, garden rooms, frame views and provide a backdrop for the displays of stems, grasses and seed heads. Hard landscaping such as a circular terrace, statues, sculptures and other focal points provide interesting ‘eye-catchers’ and can be used to enhance the natural features of the garden. These include colourful stems, for example the Dogwoods, a firm favourite being Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ and also some white-stemmed Birches, Betula utilis subsp. jacquemontii ‘Grayswood Ghost’. Seed heads provide another layer of interest and include those of Nigella damascena and Solidago canadensis. This is also true at this time of year of the remains of many grasses such as Calamagrostis x argutifolia ‘Overdam’ and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberfeder’. For flowers our gardener chooses Sarcococca confusa, Hellebores, Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ and bulbous plants such as Eranthis hyemalis (Winter Aconite) and Galanthus (Snowdrop). Maybe by January 2022 your garden will have some more of these winter attractions. If you are anything like me you will have been missing your visits to the Old Railway Line but don’t forget that they offer a very safe and easy to use ‘Click and Collect’ service for all your gardening needs as well as an on line delivery service. Have a look at their website for some winter inspiration and to get you in the mood below are a few wintery scenes from our own garden.
Frost on our Hydrangea quercifolia Winter sun through a Lacecap Hydrangea
Some of the beauty, however fleeting, in our winter gardens although I have to admit that this was on the last day of December!
As for the jobs in January the full list is given in the blog archives for 2019. We shall carry on with the tidying of the beds and borders when the weather and soil conditions permit. We try to keep off them when the soil is too wet as the compaction it causes is best avoided. As the old saying goes, if the soil is sticking to your boots then keep off the ground! We also have some pruning of deciduous shrubs to do as I described in detail in the December blog. This is always a pleasant task on a dry, sunny day which I trust we will have at least one of during the month! I also find that January is a good month for checking, repairing and re-treating trellis and fences as the plants are less in the way and there is time for these sorts of jobs before the growing season really gets started. I will also, however reluctantly, wash and clean any pots and seed trays ready for the new season and also do a bit of maintenance work on the tools including cleaning and oiling. Before you know it we will be February and the new gardening year will really be underway!
Last month I promised a blog on creating garden ponds as this is a great project for the winter months. Unfortunately life at the Old Railway Line just before Christmas became rather hectic as the rules and regulations changed almost daily and it was decided to put the Pond blog out in January rather than December, so it will now follow this blog in a few weeks time. Following that I will keep the blogs coming until we can get to a time when we can meet again at the Old Railway Line for our monthly gardening club sessions, this time in the new events room which was completed in 2020 but as yet has not been christened! Personally I can’t wait!
Until then a very Happy and Healthy New Year to you all.