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Frosty Start to 2024

Loving these bright blue skies and crisp, frosty mornings.

We have turned the corner now and the days will slowly be getting longer. Thank goodness! Now is the best time to plan – look at books, garden magazines and websites to gain inspiration for new planting combinations, refresh particular borders or new additions to your garden. When the weather is mild, you might be able to dig or fork over bare ground and get it ready for planting when the weather improves.


Perennials, Shrubs and Trees


●      Continue to prune open-grown apple and pear trees to ensure a healthy, productive cycle of fruiting wood. The aim is to create a framework that is an open goblet shape, with four to five main branches. Make sure you dress warmly as you won't be moving around too much.


●      Plant bare-root trees and shrubs, including roses, but only if the soil conditions allow. If the ground is too wet or frozen, place the plants in a bucket of moist compost in a cool, frost-free place until the conditions are right for planting.


●      Move deciduous shrubs or trees that have outgrown their space or been positioned incorrectly. You should take as much of the root system and soil around it as you can to give it the best chance of survival in its new location.


●     Check any plants that you have protected against the worst of the weather. You want to avoid excess moisture building up. If the day is dry and slightly warm, remove the covers and allow for some air circulation before restoring the cover before temperatures drop for the evening.


●      Prune roses while they are dormant. They benefit from a hard prune – remove dead, diseased and crossed branches first, then remove spindly growth and stems cluttering up the centre of the plant. Be sure to clear any dead leaves at the base as they can harbour unwanted pests and diseases. Give them a good mulch.

●      Winter prune Wisteria and other vigorous climbers (e.g. Virginia Creeper, Boston Ivy) while the flow of sap is relatively low. Make larger cuttings to thin the overall framework and lighter trimmings to expose next spring’s flower buds.


●      Check winter mulches are in place to provide frost protection for tender perennials. They should be at least 15cm deep and therefore may need topping up if any has been washed away by heavy rain.


●      Take hardwood cuttings of deciduous shrubs. Cuttings should be at least pencil thickness and 15-30cm in length, with  nodes at the base and top of each cutting. If successful, they will root in spring and be ready to be moved next autumn. Buddleia, Philadelphus, Elder and Weigela all respond well to this method.


Kitchen Garden


●      Start planning now! What are your must-have vegetables? For me, my must have veg are courgettes, beans (all kinds from runner, climbing to dwarf French), squash, beetroot, kale and kohlrabi. Why not try some new varieties as well. Good seed catalogues are Chiltern Seeds, Vital Seeds, Kings Seeds, Franchi.


●      Plan your crop rotation to avoid the buildup of pests and diseases associated with particular crops in a given area and maximise soil fertility depending on individual crop requirements.


●      Sow onion seed. When growing onions from seed, they require a fairly long growing season so it’s good to get them started early in module trays.


●      You can still plant garlic if you haven't done so already. 

●      It's also not too late to order or buy seed potatoes. You can start early potatoes. Theymust be chitted (started into growth) before planting out in March. This will advance the first harvest and improve the yield. Lay them in a tray or in egg cartons in a light, cool, frost-free place.


●      You could start sowing greenhouse tomatoes, winter salad leaves, radish and some herb seeds now if you want an early crop. You can start these on windowsills in your house or in a frost-free greenhouse if yours is unheated.


●      Force rhubarb crowns by covering them with a layer of straw or an upturned bucket/forcing jar to exclude light. Place manure or compost at the base as it will produce heat as it rots. In spring, crops of tender, pink rhubarb stems will appear 2 or 3 weeks earlier than uncovered crowns.


●      Prepare raspberry canes for planting. They thrive in free-draining slightly acidic soil. Although they like to be kept moist, it is essential to avoid waterlogging so  incorporate plenty of organic matter into the soil at planting.


●      Prune autumn fruiting raspberry canes by cutting them down to the base.

●      Prune established blackcurrants now by removing one-third of the older stems to the base. I also remove any branches that are extremely low and would be touching the ground once laden with fruit.

●      Prune gooseberries, red currants and white currants while they are dormant. Bush forms should be pruned to maintain an open-centred, upright shape, whereas cordons should be spur pruned. If fruiting shoots were pruned in the summer, they can now be cut to a couple of buds from the main branches. Don’t forget to wear thick gloves! Photo below: Gooseberry cordon before and after pruning.

●      Reduce watering of citrus plants. Keep them slightly drier at this time of year to prevent leaf loss and yellowing foliage associated with over watering.


The Cutting Garden


●      Sweet peas can be sown now for flowers in early summer. Sow in rootrainers or deep pots to allow them to establish a long root run. Sowings should be covered with newspaper or a lidded propagator to retain moisture and warmth. Ideally they should be kept at a temperature of 15℃ to speed up germination.


●      Start sowing hardy annuals such as calendulas, nigella, Cerinthe, poppies, cleomes, etc.


●      Check any dahlia tubers you have stored to ensure they are dry and pest-free.


●      Now is also a good time to order summer flowering bulbs. Most online companies like J. Parkers, Farmer Gracy, etc. are offering discounts on dahlia tubers, alliums and other summer flowering bulbs. Why not try something different or introduce another colour to add to your floral arrangements.

Other jobs


Give wildlife a helping hand in cold weather. For birds (like my little pruning partner here), provide high-fat bird feed alongside a usual grain mix and keep bird baths and ponds defrosted. Watch out for toads, frogs and other animals when turning your compost heap and resist the urge to be too tidy - leaf litter or material from last year’s herbaceous plants could provide the ideal habitat for overwintering insects.

●      If you still haven’t sown all your spring-flowering bulbs, don’t stress as you can still plant them provided the ground isn’t frozen or too wet.  You might even be able to purchase some online or at your local garden centre if you missed the boat earlier.


●      Be prepared to provide frost protection to prevent damage to more vulnerable plants. Keep your eye on the weather forecast; the coldest nights will occur when there is no wind and clear skies.


●      Look after your lawn by dispersing worm casts with a wire rake when the surface is dry and keep off frozen or wet grass; damage from your feet may show up as patches of yellow in the spring or make the lawn more susceptible to turf diseases.


●      Keep on top of those weeds! Bittercress and groundsel will happily germinate in milder winter temperatures.


●      Clean, tidy and organise sheds and/or greenhouses if you haven’t already. It’s also worth cleaning pots and seed trays ahead of the growing season to avoid the spread of pests and diseases.

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