Gardening Life in Winter
By Jonathan Diaper
On these dark days it is hard to imagine any gardening jobs that need attention. The garden seems still, parts of it even appear dead, and there is an urge to bring indoors those plants which still seem alive, such as evergreen holly and ivy. However, there are still jobs to be done. It is an ideal opportunity to prepare the garden for the take-off in spring.
It is a useful time to see the bare bones of the garden. There is a clear picture of the space that you have to play with, which trees and shrubs stand well or lean awkwardly on their neighbours. Perhaps taking out that shrub you never really liked anyway, will open up a new vista or shed new light on surrounding plants.
This time of year is ideal for pruning many deciduous woody plants. It is their dormant period, when the leaves have fallen or are about to fall. The framework of the plant (the shape you wish to retain) is clear to see and any lateral or side shoots can be pruned back to 2-3 buds. If the framework needs to be enlarged strong new shoots can be tied in to maintain the desired shape; even spacing between these branches will make the plant look more attractive and allow space for those desired flowers. Many climbing plants can be pruned to this principle, such as wisteria and climbing roses.
Winter means wiring! Broken wires and loose vine eyes can be spotted and fixed. Any branches growing surreptitiously behind drainpipes, can be pruned out, slowly jemmying them away from the wall beforehand. Wisteria and roses will be heavy when the foliage returns. The wire needs to be good quality galvanized metal, stretched tautly so that the plant won’t sag away from the wall. In my experience the green plastic-coated wire will not be strong enough to hold the weight of these branches. String or ‘stretchy’ tie should be used to tie branches in, not too tightly but with a little breathing space. The ties will give way as the branch grows, whereas wire, if left, will eventually cut into the branch and kill the stem.
Now is also an ideal time for pruning apple and pear trees – a satisfying job on a winter’s day. Any unwanted larger branches can be removed to improve the shape or open out the centre of the tree. Every apple tree is different! Some are more vigorous than others. Pruning in winter will stimulate the growth of many shoots come spring. Over-pruning, therefore, can lead to the tree being overwhelmed by new growth. For an old overgrown tree it may be best to view the prune as a 2-3 year process of renovation. Summer pruning later in the season will help to promote new fruiting buds and let sunlight in to ripen the fruit.
Fruiting buds are clustered together in spurs, being rounded and blunt in appearance. Growth buds are more pointed. A local fruit grower refers to these buds as Laurel and Hardy. To follow the theme, it is said that a productive apple tree should be airy and open-centred, enough for a bowler hat to be thrown through the middle.
Pruning isn’t the only job to do in the depths of winter. Some weeds, known as ‘ephemeral’, will continue to grow throughout winter pausing only for freezing conditions. Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) is one of these. These weeds can be vectors for diseases, such as the fungal disorder rust on groundsel. Rose leaves should be raked up to help control the spread of black spot. Any deadwood with coral spot should be removed.
A frosty day is a great time for mulching borders. Access is easy as the perennials have died down, and the hard ground will prevent a muddy mess made by barrows and boots.
Keep an eye out for weeds such as Hairy Bittercress, which will continue to grow through winter.