Read a garden classic

Words: Stephanie Donaldson

When weather keeps you indoors put your feet up and read a gardening classic. If you want to learn from an expert, it can be something improving - say Graham Stuart Thomas, William Robinson or Christopher Lloyd – alternatively it can be an escapist read about someone else’s garden.

If you have never read ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’ by Elizabeth von Arnim this is just such a book. Elizabeth lived in the German countryside at the end of the 19th century after marrying a German count (exclusively referred to as The Man of Wrath). It is as much a comedy of manners as it is a book about her garden as she valiantly fights her ignorance, the climate and the German love of straight lines.

Start Dahlias into growth

Words: Stephanie Donaldson

Dahlias can be left in the ground over winter if protected by a deep mulch of compost. I tend to hedge my bets and leave some in situ and store others in boxes filled with spent growbag compost.

In late February stored dahlias need to be moved into deep trays of fresh compost, lightly watered and positioned in good light to start them into growth. When the new shoots reach 20cm tall reduce them to five strong shoots and pot up to grow them on. They can be planted outside after all risk of frost has passed.

Other than a harsh winter, the main problem with leaving dahlias in the ground is that the emergence of their first leaves coincides with the arrival of slugs and snails. Position copper rings around the new growth to keep the molluscs at bay.

Order seeds

Words: Stephanie Donaldson

Before you succumb to the blandishments of the catalogues, sort through any seeds you have left from last year and check dates to see if they can still be used. If they are in foil packets and are in good condition, most seeds will be fine.

For some very entertaining guidance on which vegetables to sow and which to throw, go to to read Lawrence D. Hills poem in the style of Thomas Tusser (1524-80). Of course there will still be oodles of temptations in the catalogues, but try and stay realistic – the idea of germinating a baobab tree might appeal, but this is at the extreme end of fantasy gardening. Actually a cold dose of reality usually arrives when you tot up the total and that’s the moment to temper your dreams.

Grow Greenhouse Strawberry Plants for an Early Crop

Words: Stephanie Donaldson

In February dig up a few plants from your strawberry bed or bring previously potted plants undercover. Stand the potted strawberries on a gravel-filled tray in good light in the greenhouse, or alternatively plant them in multipurpose compost in a hanging basket and hang the basket above the greenhouse border.

In fine weather open the doors and windows because high temperatures will inhibit flowering. Pollinators may find their way in, but in case they don’t, hand pollinate with a soft paintbrush. Liquid feed the plants fortnightly. Cut off any runners the plants produce so that the plant’s energy goes to fruit production.

Clean, package and label saved seed

Words: Stephanie Donaldson

By now home-saved seed should have dried thoroughly and will be easy to remove from their pods and casings. Spread newspaper on the table and gather your equipment –a colander for large seeds, a wide shallow bowl and a fine gauge sieve for small seeds. You will also need seed packets –recycled envelopes with sticky labels, new envelopes, or for something smarter, Burgon & Ball have some rather good printed ones.

Place large pods in the colander and crumble them before picking out the seeds. Decant smaller seeds into the bowl, rub them gently between your palms to separate the seed from the husks. Gently blow over the bowl to remove the chaff, then sieve seeds to remove dust. Package and label with name and date.

Prune grape vines in January

Words: Stephanie Donaldson

The perfect time to prune your vine is while it is fully dormant. Once the sap starts to rise it can ‘bleed’ profusely and although current understanding is that this doesn’t do it a great deal of harm, it seems an unnecessary risk.

So get out with your secateurs and cut all the laterals (side shoots) leading off the main stems back to one or two buds. Established main stems that form the framework of the vine should be pruned to a strong new bud, and new main stems that you want to train should be cut back by half to a nice fat bud.

Save all the prunings and use them as firelighters. The bible for all pruning techniques is the RHS Guide to Pruning & Training.

Cut back old leaves on Hellebores

Words: Stephanie Donaldson

This will remove leaves infected with fungal leaf spot, making it easier to top dress the plants with well-rotted compost and reveal flowers that may otherwise be concealed amongst tatty old foliage. Don’t compost the old leaves and be sure not to leave any lying around to spread the fungus.

If your hellebores aren’t flowering as well as they used to, it may be that they are being overhung by surrounding shrubs. Although they like shade they don’t like to be crowded, so remove any low overhanging branches and they will reward you with many more flowers.

If your plants are looking stunted and the leaves have black veining they may be infected with what is commonly known as Black Death and the entire plant will need to be removed and destroyed.

Winter care for fruit trees

Words: Stephanie Donaldson

Rake up and dispose of leaves that may harbour disease (don’t compost) and also pick up decomposing fruit from the ground and remove any mouldering or mummified fruit from the tree.

On frost-free days you can carry out winter pruning on bush and standard trees (trained fruit trees are summer pruned). If you are unsure how to do this there is excellent advice on the RHS website ‘Apples and pears: winter pruning‘. Or see the intoGardens iPhone app. Save the prunings to use as kindling.

Clear a meter diameter area under the tree of perennial weeds and grasses and spread a thick mulch of compost or manure.

Protect bulbs from squirrels

Words: Stephanie Donaldson

It’s bad enough when the squirrels plunder the birdfeeders, but when they move onto your carefully selected and planted spring bulbs it’s difficult not to take it personally. Here are some ways to keep them at bay.

Save up your prunings from prickly shrubs - for example holly leaves, gorse, rose twigs.  If you haven’t planted your bulbs yet, add some to the planting hole; if you have, then spread them across the surface of thepot.  When you don’t have anything suitably prickly to hand, an upturned wire hanging basket will do the trick and will also protect the newly emerging bulbs. For something a bit grander, try these squirrel-proof cloches.

Avoid frost damage

Words: Stephanie Donaldson

Turn off the water supply to the outdoor taps or insulate them with a jacket or cover. Bring watering cans undercover or turn them upside down to prevent damage from freezing and thawing water.

To limit frost damage to terracotta pots, remove all plant saucers from beneath them and if possible raise the pots off the ground to avoid the soil inside becoming waterlogged and potentially damaging both the pot and its contents. Empty gravel from the saucers and store them upside down or stacked on their sides.

Turn the compost heap

Words: Stephanie Donaldson

When you have had enough of the festivities or the relatives you can work off your Christmas dinner/irritation by turning the compost heap. It will have lost a lot of bulk in the past few months as it settled and will not be actively composting. Turning it will introduce more oxygen which will get the beneficial organisms working away again, generating heat (as will you) and decomposing contents that have been mouldering quietly.

If you have a three-bin system, with one containing ready-to-use compost, one full and one still being filled, turn the contents of the full bin into the one being filled.

Cover the heap and in no time at all it will be working away and steaming in the cold air. Try using a compost stirrer or something lightweight like the Evergreen Compost fork from Bulldog - the perfect tool for the job.

Check trees, shrubs & climbers for weather damage

Words: Stephanie Donaldson

High winds, snow, frost and ice can all take their toll, so take advantage of any good (not frosty) weather to check for broken branches and other damage and cut back to healthy wood to avoid disease problems developing.

Heavy snow can be particularly damaging as its weight can bend branches from vertical to near horizontal, leaving trees and shrubs misshapen. Shake affected branches or use a broom to dislodge the snow. Evergreens are particularly vulnerable. Tie in any climbers that have come loose to stop them whipping about and breaking off close to the ground.

Prune wisteria

Words: Stephanie Donaldson

This is best done in February – it’s the ideal time to bring this lovely climber’s rampant tendencies under control and to ensure it flowers prolifically. The glory of a mature wisteria cannot be over-estimated, but it does need time spent on pruning or it can end up as a tangled mess with more leaves than flowers.

Pruning isn’t difficult though, simply follow the whippy side growths back to the main stem and cut them off at two or three buds, whichever is the plumpest. If it is a young plant, select a couple of strong stems to form the framework and tie them horizontally to the wall or fence. Be careful with the material you have pruned, the leaf joints can be almost thornlike so wear gloves and keep them away from your face.

Order seed potatoes

Words: Stephanie Donaldson

Although you won’t be planting your potatoes for several weeks you should get your order in now so that you can chit (sprout) them in a cool, light spot.

There are several things to consider when choosing your potatoes – first and foremost is taste – there is absolutely no point in growing bog-standard potatoes that you can buy anywhere. So go for something with great flavour.

Pink Fir Apple is one of the best, and not widely grown commercially because of its knobbly shape. However, if blight is a problem where you live, your best bet is to grow one of the Sarpo varieties (exclusively available from Thompson & Morgan) as these have real blight resistance and good flavour too.

Make leafmould

Words: Stephanie Donaldson

Instead of viewing fallen leaves in your garden as a problem, transform them into black gold. It’s far less complicated than compost-making – all you need to do is stack the leaves (avoiding any that are diseased), jump up and down on them to remove as much air as possible (a task popular with children) and then leave them to rot down.

If you don’t have space for a leaf heap, fill bin bags or biodegradeable jute leaf-collecting sacks. After a year the leafmould will be useable as a mulch, and after two years it will have decomposed into a rich, dark, crumbly mixture that can be used as a soil conditioner, lawn improver, peat substitute or seed compost.

Like peat (which we should all avoid using) leafmould is devoid of nutrients but is wonderful for adding structure to the soil and aiding moisture retention.

Tidy the shed

Words: Stephanie Donaldson

If you are a gardener who works until it’s so dark that you can’t see where to put the tools and you just open the shed door and fling them inside, you’ll know it needs sorting.

By the end of the growing season a moderately organised shed can deteriorate into chaos - there are always outdoor tasks that are far more urgent than tidying a shelf or stacking pots neatly. The truth is that you will be far more efficient if you can find the tool you are looking for rather than rummaging through a tangled heap - and stacking pots more or less in size order also helps.

If there’s enough wall space, a tool rack or two will help, as will a solar shed light so you can see what you are doing.

Prepare your Runner Bean Trench

Words: Stephanie Donaldson

There are two reasons why this is a good idea. The first is that it gives you the opportunity to fill the trench with lots of things that will rot down over the next few months to create the perfect humus rich, moisture retaining, conditions that beans love. The second is that it’s a job you can do in a quiet time of year rather than a frantic, last minute rush just before the beans are planted out.

In my light soil I line the trench with a thick layer of newspaper (grit for heavy soils) and then fill it to the brim with a mixture of equal amounts of shredded newspaper, vegetable peelings and compost. Pile the trench soil on top – it will look like you’ve buried someone, but it will settle in time and your neighbours might not call the police.