What to do in January
Gardening in January
Whatever kind of winter we are having, January is going to be the coldest month that the garden has to contend with, with night temperatures going as low as minus 5 or 6 degrees Celsius quite routinely, depending on where in the country you live. With day time temperatures sometimes hardly rising above freezing, it is a real challenge for the gardener who must make sure that everything it wrapped up against the cold but must almost make sure that no damage is done by compacting wet soil or by walking on frozen grass. Some of the most important winter tasks in the garden are not to do with gardening at all, but will certainly enhance your pleasure when outside – making sure the birds are fed will ensure that your garden is full of life and birdsong all the year round. Make sure that feeders are in areas where they can’t be reached by cats.
The earlier and less severe months of the winter should ideally have been used to tidy the garden and so hopefully there will be no debris in the way of drifts of leaves or broken branches to contend with, but if there is heavy rain and especially when this is combined with strong winds, there may still be some clearing up to do. If you need to walk on a flower bed, be careful because many bulbs are very much through in the early days of January and if these shoots are damaged, there will be no second chance. If the bulb cannot grow properly, there will be no leave to store sugars in the bulb for next year and so it may never flower again.
Containers and herbaceous perennials
It may seem strange to be watering in winter, but if you have stored some pots and containers in the shelter of the wall of the house or tucked in by a fence or under an evergreen shrub, they might get a bit dry. If the weather permits you could pull them out a little when it is raining or you could just give them a drink from a watering can – not too much because the plants will be dormant, but getting dehydrated will be very bad for the spring growth when the weather starts to warm up. Again if weather permits and the ground is not too wet, it is well worth a walk around the garden looking to see if there are any herbaceous perennials which could do with lifting and dividing. In January, when there is very little growth showing, it is easier to see any gaps there are in the beds and you can fill these in with the divided plants. If you feel like a change, then January is certainly a good time to re-plan any beds which have become a little tired and boring. Many gardeners do most of their summer planning in January when it is too nasty to be out and about.
If snow is heavy it is essential that it is not allowed to lie in the crowns of trees and shrubs, or the weight can cause severe damage with broken branches which can in their turn damage plants below when they fall. While the branches are bare in this most dormant period then you can prune to maintain shape in almost any tree or shrub – winter flowering shrubs being the exception, of course. Not only is the plant dormant so will take better to pruning, but with no leaves, it is much easier to see what you are doing. A prime candidate for this winter pruning is wisteria; you can trim off sideshoots to three or four buds, but take care to leave the flower buds in place to avoid spoiling the display later on. If you have anything growing up a wall of the house, such as ornamental vines, ivies or other creepers, you can take the opportunity of any nice dry days to examine the brickwork and guttering to make sure they are not doing any structural damage. Cut back where necessary to prevent any damage in the summer growing season.
Many novice gardeners are surprised to learn that January is an ideal time to plant bare-rooted deciduous hedging and other plants, but weather permitting this is one of the best months to choose. If you are increasing your stock of rose bushes, try to avoid planting new ones where roses have been grown before, otherwise soil borne pests will just continue to damage the new stock. If you are planting new trees or shrubs, make sure that they are adequately staked to prevent wind rock – this can seriously damage the roots and can slow down the establishment of the plant; in extreme cases, the plant may die. While the trees are bare, checking staking around the garden is much simpler. Check all ties and ensure that the stakes are firm but don’t be too enthusiastic – too tight can be if anything worse than too loose, causing damage to bark and letting in pests and diseases. While you are outside and examining shrubs and hedges for damage caused by the weather, make certain that the interiors of hedges are not getting congested with dead twigs and sideshoots. Lack of air caused by this mass of old wood can harbour bests and funguses so if you can, pull it out and bring more light and oxygen to the plant. It may look a little messy at first but the new growth will soon cover up the centre and you will be rewarded by a much stronger hedge or shrub when the spring arrives.
Flowers in January
January can be a bit of a depressing month for many, with the anti-climax after Christmas and probably the worst weather of the year. The shortest day has been and gone, though, so the nights are drawing out, albeit slowly. A walk round the garden should reward you with signs of spring and if you planned ahead and put in bulbs in the autumn, they will be making strong growth and some of the very early ones such as winter aconite (eranthis hyemalis) and some crocuses and snowdrops will be in flower. If you don’t have any colour in your garden at this time of year, make yourself a note to make sure to order some early flowering bulbs so that next January will be a bit more cheerful! Some snowdrops have a subtle but very lovely fragrance – try ‘Magnet’ for large blooms along with its delicious smell.
Many people will have received pot plants as Christmas presents and these may now need a little care and attention. Some will have been forced to flower over the holiday period and some of these plants may be a little disappointing later, having no second flush of flower. Trimming and light pruning to make them more bushy will make them more attractive at the end of this season and will also mean that they will survive to give pleasure next year. If Christmas flowering bulbs are now over, let them rest in a sheltered spot outdoors. You can then plant them in the garden or save the bulbs to use indoors again next year. If your hyacinths and hippeastrum are still in flower, you may need to support them – take care that the flower doesn’t get heavier than the pot or you may end up with a nasty mess and a broken flower spike. If your stocking included a hippeastrum (amaryllis) bulb, planting it now (with the top above the soil level) will give you a nice display from this spectacular plant for late winter or early spring. Although a lovely flower, Poinsettia are always a challenge when received as a gift. They don’t like being chilled, so don’t feel guilty if they don’t do too well in the home; the chances are that they have been bought from a street or market stall and have been very cold at a point pre-sale. Also, don’t overwater them; they come from Africa and in the wild don’t get regular watering.
If your lawn is looking rather muddy and neglected in January, you could try mending any really bad patches, but the best advice for grass care at this time of the year is to stay off it as much as possible. This is especially true if there is frost or snow, because damage can be severe if it is walked on at this time. Waterlogging may well be a problem and with excessive rainfall being the norm in January in recent winters, the only way to minimise this is to prepare well in the autumn. If you have a waterlogged lawn, you may find that you have problems with various moulds and fungi, which will need to be addressed, but the best advice for a muddy and damaged lawn is to leave it alone as much as possible until the weather is drier. If conditions do permit, repairs around the edge can be done in January. You can do this quite easily with turves cut from elsewhere or even by cutting at the edge of the lawn and turning it round so that the worn patch is to the inner edge, where it will soon be colonised by grass.
January needed be gloomy in the garden with a little planning. It is a good time to see what needs repair or replacement, and if your garden is looking a little sad and neglected, then this month is a good time to spend inside with a good seed and plant catalogue, planning your planting for the year ahead to make sure that next January is more cheerful.