Six gardening jobs for the New Year

Pennisetum orientale in the morning frost.jpg

Jackie Hunt, Turn End’s gardener, explains some of the work she undertakes at the start of the year.

1. Tidy beds and borders

The frosts, rain and wind have taken their toll on the faded herbaceous perennials that still remain. I’m leaving the stems, spent flowers and seed heads that still look attractive, particularly silhouetted in winter’s low sunlight or rimmed in frost. Particularly attractive are several plants in No Mans (the dry garden), including Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’s’ ghostly white stems, spiky Eryngium flower heads and twisted, swollen Nigella damascena seed heads.

But in the Spring garden and Summer borders I’ve cut down dead stems and trimmed back the scruffy leaves of evergreen perennials such as Brunnera macrophylla and Phlomis russeliana to make way for the emerging bulbs that are rapidly carpeting the ground.

I try to leave some areas as untouched for as long as I can. Those borders strewn with dry leaf litter make a sheltered home for all kinds of insects and amphibians. Also leave herbaceous ornamental grasses, such as Pennisetum, Calamagrostis and Miscanthus until the worst of the cold weather has past and new growth is well on its way.

2. Mulching

This job is an amazing alternative to the gym! I must shift several tonnes of compost between autumn and spring, certainly keeping me warm and surely building up biceps!

I started mulching in autumn when the soil was still holding some warmth.  As we have a very free draining soil, we find it is greatly improved by covering the surface with a 4-5cm layer of garden compost. The compost is gradually and naturally incorporated into the soil by worms and helps it hold water and nutrients. If you have heavy clay soil it will also help improve drainage. A mulch will also protect the roots of plants from winter cold and suppress weeds. We make our own compost from lawn clippings, collected leaves, soft prunings and non-invasive weeds, but you can use well rotted manure, leafmould, or buy composted garden waste from your local council. You can also get spent mushroom compost delivered to you in bulk bags (this may not be suitable if you already have a very alkaline soil or grow acid loving plants, as spent mushroom compost is quite chalky). Only mulch the soil whilst it warm, so pick a warm, sunny spell. Don’t mulch on top of frozen and frosty soil or in cold weather. Keep mulch away from the crowns of herbaceous plants and the stems of shrubs to prevent rotting. You can start mulching again as the soil starts warming up again in mid spring.

3. Ventilate greenhouses

Take advantage of sunny dry days and open greenhouse doors and windows to get a good change of air through the buidling. Keep an eye on plants and pick off and dispose of rotted leaves. Inspect stored plants such as Dahlias and Cannas to check they are not rotting or drying out.

4. Prune wisteria

Wisteria needs pruning twice a year, to keep it in its allotted space and to encourage lots of flowers. Back in July or August, I shortened the long green whippy shoots to about 5 or 6 leaves. This transfers the energy in the plant into making flowers rather than growing long shoots. In winter (January or February) I cut back those same shoots back further, to just 2 or 3 buds. This keeps the plant compact and prevents leaves from obscuring the flowers.

5. Take care of your feathered friends!

Most berries have been stripped from trees and shrubs by now, so make sure you keep putting out food for birds. Keep bird baths scrubbed clean, full and unfrozen. If you are not sure what food to buy for birds, there is some great advice on the RSPB website.

6. Order bulbs for spring planting

We plant lots of bulbs in the autumn for a spring display, but we also peruse catalogues for interesting summer and autumn flowering plants to extend interest later in the year. We’ve introduced new Dahlias, Hesperantha and Gladioli in recent years. They will arrive later in the spring for planting after the worst frosts.