In case you want to escape into the garden
– auf Deutsch lesen — Despite the cold, unpleasant weather, the first hopeful signs start appearing around us. I have seen (and smelled!) my first Hamamelis flowers and the first snowdrops are spreading their cheerful little wings. They provide great joy as they bravely face up to the weather. My spirits are further lifted as the days are starting to lengthen noticeably. For me this is always the turning point in winter, the moment where I can look forward to the return of spring and all the joys this brings.
Spring is happening at the Garden Academy
The colder night-time temperatures do put a damper on the spring itch, just at a time where many of us experience a great need to get our fingers into the soil. I have the advantage of having the Garden Academy as my play pen and we can cheat a little bit. Today the season has really started for us. The first gardeners are back out of hibernation and the first plant deliveries have come. A big delivery of fresh wonderfully scented herbs filled with sunshine came from Italy.
We have also taken delivery of the bare rooted roses we have looked out for the webshop and the “click and collect” which we will be launching on Monday, enabling our customer to place an order for collection. Even if we have to remain shut to the public, we too want to share some of the early comforting joys this season can bring brings into our lives.
What to do in the garden right now?
Many have packed away their gardening tools and hibernate inside, dreaming of the season to come. For those of you who have an allotment plot it must feel particularly hard as you have no access to basic facilities like water, which makes a visit trickier.
Even when the weather is not that inviting, it is nice to spend a little time pottering in the garden. These past days there have been glorious frosty, sunny moments, that would have been a shame to miss.
Tree- and shrub pruning work.
Pruning and felling work needs to be completed before the end of February, when the birds’ breeding season starts. If there is no severe frost, now is the ideal time to prune. Ideally, it is better to prune little, but regularly. Do not allow plants to get too big before you prune. Young trees and shrubs often benefit from gentle formative pruning in the first few years to ensure they have a nice shape and good open structure. Small cuts are easier to make and will heal much quicker. If you have chosen the right plant for the right place, there should be no need to prune, other than a possible formative cut at the start of the plant’s life in your garden.
Bigger pruning projects
Sometimes secateurs do not suﬃce, and the task ahead involves major work. Overgrown hedges, shrubs that have become so large they smother neighbours, or others that lack vitality can be pruned at this time of year. Although you will lose this season’s flowers on the spring flowering plants such as Lilac, Rhododendron or spring-flowering Clematis, it is better to give the plant the chance to re-grow with all the vitality that the spring season enables, skipping one flowering season.
Maybe you need to hire help from somebody qualified to do this for you. Before you get the saw out to chop of big branches or take down a tree, check with your local authority whether you need a permit to cut back or fell trees before you start work: councils have their own rules and regulations, which can turn out expensive if you ignore them. If you engage a professional, they will help you with the necessary application forms.
Inspect your toolshed
Check your tools and machinery. Book an appointment now to have mowers, hedgetrimmers and other pieces of motorized equipment serviced. Clean, sharpen and oil secateurs, as well as steel spades, forks, and other tools.
Clean the greenhouse.
Give your greenhouse a thorough clean, inside, and out. During the year limescale, moss and dirt accumulates on the glass and reduces the amount of light that can penetrate, which will aﬀect plant growth and health. Hygiene measures are as important for plants as they are for people. Do start the season with a clean greenhouse, to avoid unnecessary pests and diseases during the season. If you overwinter plants in the greenhouse, make sure you aerate well on frost-free days. This too will avoid the build-up of fungal diseases.
Look after the birds
You may be familiar with my garden Bed and Breakfast practice: I oﬀer food an accommodation for the birds during the winter months, so that in the spring they will help to keep my garden clear of unwanted pests as they look for tasty morsels to feed to their young. Watching wrens, blackbirds, and an assortment of tits rummage around in the borders is extremely rewarding. A little additional feed and water keeps the population in the garden. Important is that they have some dense, twiggy, preferably evergreen vegetation like a Rhododendron nearby, so they can escape and hide in case of danger and have a place to queue during busy feeding times.
Planning and preparation
Although it is still a bit early for sowing most annuals and vegetables*, it is not too early to plan, and possibly order that what you want to grow this coming season. Even if you only have limited space in your garden or on your balcony, it is always nice to have some fresh herbs and a few vegetables that can be tucked in among the flowers. I am a great fan of vegetables you can harvest over a long season such as zucchinis, mangold, peas and beans. Those that bring an attractive splash of colour into the garden make a valuable visual contribution and are easier to harvest as they are more visible.
Particularly handsome are Borlol beans such as the dwarf variety ‘Fagioli Nani Splendido’ with their white and red mottled pods, or the new mangetout variety ‘Climbing Purple Magnolia’ with attractive lilac flower and dramatic dark purple-black pods. These require a light climbing support made up of 1,5m tall twiggy beech or hazel branches. (Now is the time to cut these before the buds swell!)
*A few seeds impatient gardeners can sow already.
Some plants need a little more time to reach flowering and/or fruiting point, so can be sown already now on a bright windowsill, preferably in a room that is not too hot. I used to use my guestroom, where the window was east-facing, and I could keep the temperature several degrees cooler than in the rest of the house. (Tough luck for early- season visitors – they always had to share with my small nursery.) One of my favourite annual climbers Cobea scandens and Ecremocarpus scaber should be sown early, as otherwise the start of their flowering season co-insides with the start of autumn. Sweetpeas can also be sown now.
Some of the warmth-loving vegetables such as chillies and aubergines also benefit from a long growing season. Use a special seed-compost that has low fertility and keep a daily check on your babies. They should be damp but not too wet, and any signs of disease, increase ventilation, reduce humidity, and remove diseased material. Have a go at raising your own plants – it is so much fun!
I hope you find the occasional hour that you can go outside and enjoy these early days of the season. Wrapped-up warm it is a pleasure to observe the first small signs of life returning. Treat yourself!