Gardening expert Mary Lovell-Smith shares what you can get done in the garden this month

Take some cold comfort this month by doing a little ground work

Garden work

If the ground is not too wet and the soil free draining, early snap and sugar peas, both cool-weather crops, may be sown in all but frost-prone zones, in which case sowing should be delayed until spring. An arrangement of twigs over the row will prevent birds from scratching them up and eating new shoots and also provide support. Peas have shallow roots, which dry out easily, so cover with straw or compost to help soil moisture retention.

Top dressing

Feed fruit trees (but not citrus) with a proprietal fertiliser or with a mulch of compost or well-rotted manure, being careful not to let it rest against the trunks, which can encourage rotting or infection.

Prune away

Plant roses, except in the coldest districts, when August is a better month. Roses may also be pruned now, except for banksias, climbing, species and old-type, non-repeat flowering roses, which are best done just after flowering. Remove weak, spindly, diseased, criss-crossing and dead branches. Then cut remaining stems to just above where the previous season’s growth began, and to an outward facing bud.

What to plant

Garlic and broad beans may also go in now – and sweet peas, again as long as the soil is not sodden.

Landscape 101

Being a quiet time workwise in the garden, and with the memory of last season’s successes and failures still relatively fresh, these long evenings are perfect for reflecting on what one might want to do differently this coming season – and to start initiating change. It’s time to look at what grew well, and what struggled, and why. Sometimes it may be a matter of sowing or planting earlier, or shifting plants to somewhere with more or less sun or wind, or a place not in competition with other plants. Other times the reason for failure to thrive in a given spot may be as simple as needing more feed, or water.
Other considerations may be aesthetic – did the flower colours clash? Did they flower at different times, ruining what was intended to have been a magnificent display. Did one plant dominate or get too big? Should you have planted more of another? Should they be spaced further apart, or further back or forward in the border?

If you had trouble accessing parts of the beds or gardens without trampling plants, it may be a good time to put in stepping stones. If a hedge borders a garden, consider creating a path, or clear space along its length to ease clipping. It need not be very wide but it will make a world of difference.

Maybe the hedge or rose bed you inherited when you moved in really isn’t your cup of tea. You’ll know after a year or so whether you want it out. Now’s the time to think about what you might replace it with.

Maybe the children have grown up and no longer use the lawn, why not turn it into garden – ornamental or edible, or combine the two? Or maybe you just feel like change for change’s sake.

Gardening’s many joys are not just to be found in the final product. Rather the dreaming, the planning, the doing, and the anticipation also offer deep satisfaction.

Steal this look

In cutting down dead and dying flowers and lopping off seedheads, gardeners are often depriving themselves and other creatures of much joy and sustenance. The pale low winter sun shining through bedraggled seedheads and highlighting their silhouettes can be exquisite. As is frost or heavy dew shimmering on a finely wrought spider’s web. Leaving seedheads on often also has the practical benefit of providing food for birds (and encouraging them into your garden) and a habitat for a richness of insects. While not all of which may be welcome by fastidious gardeners, it pays to remember that diversity – of plants, creatures, insects, microbes – is the key to a healthy garden. Some of the more picturesque and productive heads that can be left on include allium, eryngium, echinacea, helenium, opium poppy, phlomis (pictured), rudbeckia, sedum, teasel and, of course, ornamental grasses.

Get out the knives, pruning time is upon us

Those plants that should be cut back in winter (rather than during the other three seasons) include shrubs that flower on the current season’s wood; deciduous trees and shrubs; bleeders (such as grapevines, figs, acers and beeches); soft fruit including blueberries, black and red currants, gooseberries and autumn-fruiting raspberries; and wisteria, which should be given a second prune in summer. A light dressing of blood and bone stirred gently into flower beds will encourage stronger roots and foliage.

How to grow rhubarb

Rhubarb is known as a gross feeder, which means it loves rich soil. A popular technique is to dig a big hole, preferably somewhere sunny, and filling it three-quarters full with compost and manure (horse, cow, sheep, pig or chicken), and topping up the remainder with soil, a handful of blood and bone and some wood ash thrown in for good measure. Plant crowns 3cm to 4cm deep any time from autumn to spring, which is also when plants are best divided. Water in well and continue to water regularly. If you are determined to maximise the plumpness of your stalks, then feed them a liquid fertiliser once or twice a month. It is best to leave the plant a year or two before harvesting to give it time to establish. A plant’s vitality can also be drained by seed production so cut flowerheads off early.

Consider this: rhubarb forcer

Okay, we have to admit it is almost the elegant sculptural curves of a terracotta forcer as much as how deliciously tender it renders the flavour of rhubarb that make us desire one for our garden. In early spring, when fresh fruit (though technically it is a vegetable) is scarce, a welcome addition to the menu are the soft, sweet pale pink rhubarb stalks.

This premature production is triggered by the lack of light reaching the crowns, a process that also tempers their acidity. Superbly simple to use, it is just a matter of filling the forcer with straw and popping it over the emerging rhubarb. Rotate around plants every year so as not to weaken them.

Words by: Mary Lovell-Smith

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