03 Jul 2022

Fresh hope of a great year’s gardening blooms

One of the delights of this time of year - an early daffodil coming in to view

One of the delights of this time of year - an early daffodil coming in to view

As you sprawl on the sofa cursing the existence of Quality Street and Bailey’s Irish Cream, you might take to leafing through the gorgeous garden books you got for Christmas.

This is possibly not a good move. The pictures in those beautiful coffee table books serve no purpose at this time of year other than to depress you.

Think. You are in the middle of a post-festive sugar slump. The light outside is negligible. Actually, calling it light is sort of laughable. Christmas, that brief glint of colour in the bleak mid-winter is a memory now and we are back to bleak.

This being so, the last thing you need is a smart alec celebrity gardener with a whole team of gardening elves who keep their plot perfect, harassing you with photos of their flower borders dusted in glistening white frost, accompanied by writing about the glory of the winter garden.

You looked out the window this morning and did not see a pristine, ‘Frozen’-inspired garden. It was more a study in brown and grey. What bit of frost that there has been, only served to create frost-mushed growth, now glimpsed through murky daylight.

Why can’t you have the glittering white, winter seed heads from the coffee table books, all magic and Winter Wonderlandy?Why is your winter garden more Grinch than glorious?

Truth be told, the garden in the photo was probably photographed in October, and dressed by a stylist using flour, icing sugar, a sieve and clever lighting. Do not be fooled. Do not feel bad that you get black frost and non-stick snow rather than Alpine blue-white snowfall. It is only very occasionally that we are lucky enough to get mid-winter conditions that look like Christmas cards and lifestyle magazines.

Drag yourself off the armchair. Pile on the waterproof, windproof layers. Plug some music or comedy onto your phone and head out. While from a distance, the garden may appear a bit miserable, up close, there are little shoots of hope scattered about and an hour or two spent getting to see them and possibly helping some of them along, will bring your cheer back.

For a start, under the brown slime of last year’s agapanthus and nerine leaves, lying down on the soil, you might find some snowdrop shoots or some other spring bulb, pushing their way up into the world.

Under the huge, leathery, dried up hellebore leaves, there are fresh flower buds unfurling. If you cut away the dead foliage, you will both clean up that few square metres and bring into view the extraordinary hellebore flowers about to grace your garden.

Take a rake and scoop up what is - I promise – the final layer of fallen leaves and bring them to the compost.

Then chop back the tatty, desiccated stalks of those herbaceous perennials you left in-situ last autumn for the birds to raid for seeds – as well as for the frost that was supposed to come and create the moody glamour shots of a dawn frost-covered garden for you.

Once the dead, brown and mushy stuff is gone, it is surprising how green the remaining garden will look. The picture may be lean but it will be clean.

This clear palette is perfect for spotting new growth, but that includes weeds, and there are few satisfactions as good as that of nabbing little bunches of shoots that nasties like willow herb are already beginning to put up. They look like dolls house size cabbages and getting a little fork under the rootball is a real pleasure.

Remember too that 15 minutes given over to weeding at this time of year saves several hours of considerably harder slog later in the year. You will also be able to spot things like baby nettle shoots, and follow their yellow travelling roots along the border, which will enable you to get the clump before it gets going.

The happiness that spotting little clumps of daffodils here and there in the grass and in the borders is a real early January cheer-up.

For my part, I am also spotting those blank bits of ground where nothing much is happening right now. The plan will be to sink a few pots of sprouting bulbs into those spaces for maximum impact in a few weeks time. As these bulbs are in pots, I will be able to lift them when the flowers are gone over and the leaves begin to look tatty.

I know the song says that Christmas ‘is the most wonderful time of the year’. For me it is right now. It might be disguised by the low winter light and short days, but the fresh new hope of a great and successful gardening year is here. Get out there and enjoy it.

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