Jan 11 – ‘New Year, Same Old Weather’

WELL here we are the start of a brand new year and at the start of a brand new set of challenges in the garden. Once again the winter months have been particularly punishing with record cold temperatures and generous coverings of snow.

 We recorded a frost of -12 °C in our garden in Bishop’s Stortford a couple of weeks ago and many of our plants have suffered very badly as a result, despite being protected with fleece. Some plants will gradually recover, such as the olives and Ceanothus but for others like our hardy bananas and some palms its curtains I’m afraid. We have been pushing our luck over the last few years, fooling ourselves that we can grow Mediterranean plants just as well as anywhere else but for the second year running nature has reminded us who’s the boss. 

 Unless we are prepared to treat certain plants like Phoenix palms as annuals, we need to realise that some things we just can’t grow, no matter how much we want to. Our winter is far too temperamental.

One lesson we have learnt is not to plant variegated hebes anymore, they just get hammered every year. The small compact ones with silvery leaves seem to have escaped with very little damage whilst the larger leaved ones have been badly scorched.

 The hybrid cyclamens that were in all the garden centres before Christmas are also a complete waist of time. They give a nice splash of colour for a week or two providing it’s mild but the moment you get a touch of frost they just disintegrate into brown mush. So save your money or buy a nice house plant instead.

 If we do get a reasonable day and you are in the mood for getting your hands dirty there are some things you can do. The most obvious is tidying up some of those winter damaged plants. With Cordylines you can be a bit brutal and cut off the whole top of the affected plant so that you are just left with a bare stem. You should find that the plant will re-shoot in another month or so. They are more resilient than you think.

 Phormiums have also been quite badly affected but this is due more to the weight of the snow laying on them than the cold itself. If yours are looking untidy and floppy cut off those scrappy leaves as close to the base as you can so that the plant looks as upright as possible. Again it will re-shoot in the spring. Smaller Phormiums may be beyond help and in which case you will have to bite the bullet and pull them up and get rid of them.

 If you are a bit worried about some of your plants wrapped up in fleece, choose a nice dry day when it’s not too cold and take the fleece off. Cut off any dead or dying leaves and leave for a day or two, or until the weather turns frosty and then re-fleece, ensuring the foliage is dry to avoid mildew setting in. Ensure you re-wrap thoroughly with many layers making sure the stems are also protected. Don’t forget potentially we could still have two more frosty months.

 Amongst other things you can do is to get stuck into some winter pruning. The middle of winter is the ideal time to give wisterias their main prune (they are also lightly pruned in August). All you need to do is to shorten the lateral spurs (those whippy shoots growing from the main plant) to 2 buds away from where they meet the main stem. This will encourage a good display of flowers in May.

 It’s also a good time to prune apple and pear trees. The main aims of pruning are to open up the tree to let in more light, remove dead and diseased branches and generally increase vigour so that the tree produces more fruiting spurs and then consequently fruits better for you. Start by cutting back any dead or diseased branches. Then cut back any crossing branches, low growing branches or any that are growing downwards. The aim is to keep the tree open enough for a pigeon to be able to fly through it without its wings touching the branches.   All this general thinning and tidying will stimulate new growth and regeneration of the tree.

 Don’t be tempted to prune plums, peaches or cherries just yet. Winter pruning any type of stone fruit can leave them open to a disease called ‘Silver leaf’ which can prove fatal. Instead it’s better to leave it until May or June.

 Keep the leaves off the lawn but try not to walk on it too much or mow it unless really necessary as it’s very water-logged at the moment and you don’t want to cause further compaction.

 But if you can’t be bothered braving the elements at the moment, then don’t worry, there really isn’t anything in the garden that won’t keep until next month. Stay inside with a nice cup of tea and read your gardening magazines or seed catalogues and plan for what could be another busy gardening year.

 I know it’s looking bleak out in the garden at the moment but take heart, the temperature is slowly rising, the day length is increasing and it won’t be too long before the snowdrops are out and the daffodils won’t be far behind them.