Fail to prune now, prepare to fail in 2021

It may be deep midwinter, but there is always something to do in the garden, says Sean Brady, horticulturalist at Blarney Castle Gardens
Fail to prune now, prepare to fail in 2021

Rose pruning can be done during the dormant winter months

CURRENT circumstances have made our gardens prized commodities. They are our own little oasis of calm when anxieties around us are running high.

However, just because the temperature has dropped does not mean we can stop taking care of our gardens. The hard work you put in now will keep you busy and lay the foundation for a great spring and summer next year.

French writer and philosopher Albert Camus once said: “In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.”

Never is that truer than with gardening in winter.

Even though it is a quiet season, there’s still plenty of work to be done. The cold months of December through March provide a perfect opportunity for building cloches, cold frames and even greenhouses, which enable gardeners to extend the harvest season.

Also, winter is a great time to start early spring crops from seed. Since winter reveals a garden’s framework, it’s an ideal time to dig new beds, lay paths, and gather sticks for staking beans and peas.

Starting seeds indoors has lots of advantages, such as it is cheaper than buying seedlings, you can harvest a plant’s bounty earlier, and your seedlings can be stronger and healthier than most commercially raised specimens.

Plus, if you save your own seeds over the years, you can create your own unique varieties that will be the envy of other gardeners.

To get started, fill a clean container, such as an egg carton, or seed starter tray, with a good quality seed growing medium. The container must drain well, so punch holes if necessary.

Plant the seeds according to the directions on the packet and place the container inside a large, loose, transparent plastic bag. The bag will raise the temperature and humidity of the growing atmosphere.

If the seeds require sunlight to germinate — not all do — place them in a warm, sunny spot and turn the container often to make sure the stems grow straight. Check the soil frequently and ensure it’s moist but not sodden.

Once the seedling has four or more true leaves, pot them into a growing medium, in readiness for planting out. Cool season crops such as broccoli, cabbage, celery, leek and a variety of lettuces can all start indoors from seed in the winter months.

To give tender seedlings their best chance for survival, you’ll need to harden them off in a cold frame or a cloche before planting in the ground.

Cut back any perennials that have died down and prune roses. Add cloches to winter salads to protect them from the weather and pests and wrap pots of half-hardy plants in bubble wrap or fleece. Bring tender plants indoors or put them in a greenhouse if you have one. This might sound a bit contradictory, but watering your plants before a hard frost can actually protect them.

Watering in advance of a predicted freeze helps plants, especially potted plants and annuals, make it through a hard freeze as it allows them to take up moisture before the ground is frozen and prevents water reaching the root zone.

Be sure to hydrate above-ground shoots as well as the roots. Give container plants extra protection, wrap tender plants and keep them warm with a horticultural fleece. Cover with frost cloth or other heat retentive blankets and move pots and other containers close to the house for extra heat.

Pruning is another very important job that needs to be done in winter. Not all trees, climbers and shrubs are pruned in winter. But for many, the time to shape and prune is when they’re dormant.

Check pruning times for individual trees and shrubs, but for many winter is the perfect opportunity. Once the last of their leaves have been shed, cut back any branches that hang too low or look untidy. The lack of foliage allows you to see the full shape of the tree so you can prune it back to your preferred shape and size. Apples, pears, many roses, type 2 and 3 Clematis, Sambucus, Buddleia and autumn fruiting raspberries are among the key candidates. Fail to prune in winter and you’ll be pruning for failure later in the year.

Adding compost to your beds now will help make sure your plants are healthier next year. The winter months are the perfect time to spread it around your garden to make sure your plants are happy, come spring.

If you have clay soil, now is the time to dig the beds but hold fire if the ground is sodden or after a frost. Digging now allows the frost to break up the soil over the winter, improving the structure.

As long as your beds aren’t seriously compacted, there is no need to double dig. If you have a sandy soil, it’s best to wait until spring to dig as your beds will be more prone to moisture loss thanks to their free-draining nature.

Fat balls are a great treat for the birds
Fat balls are a great treat for the birds

The wildlife in the garden need as much help as possible through the winter months. Remember to top up bird feeders with seeds and nuts to keep the birds happy. Birds especially appreciate fatty, high-energy foods (such as commercially available fat balls) in cold months. Establish a feeding routine, provide water, and clean feeders and bird baths regularly to maintain good hygiene and avoid attracting vermin.

Clutter builds up in the garden. Old supports, mouldy netting and broken pots need to be cleared away, and forgotten vegetables pulled out and composted. Leaves will have scattered themselves across the garden and need clearing up. These are only a sample of what needs to be done in the garden in winter and you will be rewarded for your hard work in the summer.

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