New Year, New Garden – 10 tips for January Gardens

Happy new year to everyone – if you are anything like me, you will be currently avoiding your swamp of a garden at present and just hoping its all ok. There are however plenty of things you can do – quite a few of which don’t require you to be out in the cold!

1) Think about pruning and overall structure

This bit you may be able to do from inside! Consider which shrubs need pruning – looking at the winter structure of your garden. In the winter you can see more easily what needs taking back/removing and what is looking good. Are there large evergreens that are now overhanging half your garden that you would like pushed back? Are there trees and shrubs that look leggy and ugly or just amorphus blob shapes?

Identify which parts of your garden fit into which categories and plan what you want to do.

a) Cut back to make room – hedges to be trimmed, encroaching shrubbery, views becoming obscured – this is often the largest of the jobs and you may want to consider getting someone else to do it. Take some photos and sketch onto them what you want to happen or get a good local landscaper or landscape gardener in to assist if you don’t feel up to tackling this

b) Reshaping- there are plenty of ways to reshape shrubs – as a rule, whilst some gardeners (even professionals – it seems to be the vogue around us) shape shrubs into neat mounds and balls to keep them looking “tidy” I loathe this approach. See our other blogs on planting and structure for tips on where to use clipped shapes, but in general you are best off having some very deliberate clipped shapes – hedging, yew balls etc, and allowing the other shrubs to show their elegant branching or arched shapes – they weren’t meant to be blobby “ghosts” and rarely look good like that. Seek to open up the structure, feel free to clear the lower stems entirely to allow underplanting, remove dead and broken stems, and clear out entirely the longest stems if you wish to control the height.

spring garden inspiration with wild garlic and bluebells

c) Reshape – look at the range of shapes you can achieve – keep it simple and maybe choose a couple of shrubs if you are lucky enough to have them, that you can train into “umbrella forms” or open multistems. Rhododendrons are brilliant for this, and I have on several occasions transformed a thuggish bank of rhodys into an elegant glade of underplanted multistems this way.

spring garden inspiration mown path through meadow

Don’t fret about pruning – it is always positioned as a mystic art, and whilst of course you can prune better by reading up on it, having a massive fear of doing something wrong puts 90% of people off sorting things out that really would be better done even if not at the perfect time. If it is still raining maybe look up how to prune the largest of the shrubs you want to have a go at (whilst curled up with a hot chocolate) but don’t let the bewildering volume of what to do put you off – have a go. If it looks worse it will probably grow out of that, and if not you are probably better off without it!

2) Prune

Whole books are written about pruning and I don’t intend to try here to cover them, but there are some principles that cover most things in domestic gardens (on the assumption you aren’t too precious about your plants). You rarely kill things by pruning in winter, and the main risk is that you lose some flower or fruit by trimming the “wrong” bits, but in most cases that is not the end of the world, and is much less important than improving the overall structure of your garden. Having planned your priorities, wait for a decently dry day and get out there and have a go:

  • We typically prune when the plant is dormant – that probably means now if you are in the UK and up until the new shoots start appearing. Use sharp tools so that you don’t leave great tears and gashes. Don’t be afraid to cut back hard – most shrubs and roses welcome it.
  • As a guide – large evergreens can usually be cut back hard and won’t mind – this includes laurels, holly, viburnum tinus, choisya and yew.
  • I find smaller evergreens more temperamental, Ceanothus famously doesn’t really like being pruned, although I often do if it is in the way. Hebes often get leggy and ugly and don’t renovate well so I more often replace, but give it a go if you fancy it. Lavender typically chops back well as does Cistus. Daphne is worth doing carefully as they are slow growing and the scent is so gorgeous they are worth preserving!
  • The only absolute rule is BE CAREFUL with any conifers. Most of these will not regenerate if you cut back into brown foliage areas – its why you see brown conifer hedges all over the place – you are often better biting the bullet and removing them if you need to cut back that far. Large leylandii hedges can look good if maintained very regularly, but if grown out there is little you can do to bring them back under control without ending up with a mass of unsightly stumpy ends and brown foliage.
  • Most large deciduous shrubs can also be slashed back – I am guided by the fact that if I don’t like them in my garden as they are, I have lost nothing if I kill them by reshaping! This may not be RHS approved advice, but it largely works. If you have a magnificent tree then do please get advice (tree surgeons are usually happy to advise from a photo in the first instance), but shrubs are there to make your garden look good not for you to have to pussyfoot around.
  • It is obvious that if they have flower buds on them and you cut those off you will lose flowers – so if they look as if they are winter flowering you might want to leave it till after they are done!

3) Rake up leaves that are sitting all over your plants

Sorry – yes this gets you outside again, but its an easy one – most perennials (those that die back in winter) can happily sit out the winter under a blanket of leaves, but the small shrubs will be best cleared of as much of this as possible – feel free to just dump the leaves on the bare soil areas as it will act as a perfectly good mulch if you don’t have time to put it into a compost bin. Definitely try to get the leaves and debris off the lawn as much as possible.

spring garden inspiration mown path through meadow

4) It’s a great time to start to plot your garden assets

Mark up the boggy areas while its wet, note areas that get frosted, and do a simple sun map to show the sunny spots first thing, lunchtime and late PM – this can be very useful when planning your overall garden and improving planting, drainage and seating/entertaining spaces. Ideally do this again whenever you think of it – but ideally make a note to do in April, July and October so you have a full picture! There are some online calculators that do this for you – but they don’t capture the impact of local trees and buildings so your own observations are the best!

spring garden inspiration mown path through meadow

5)   Order some seeds/plants/roses!

Curl up on a sofa and have a look at the seed company websites – seeds are really cheap! Pick a vegetable to try, get the kids to choose one, or find a plant you would like to grow or choose a rose to tuck into a pot or a border.  Look for some Autumn flowering bulbs or choose your favourite colour and seek out a plant in that colour to try. Look for plants named after friends with birthdays coming up – there are a fair few that solve the January birthday problem although more girls names than boys (search on Rosa ‘Jean’ (insert name to suit) as a good start!)

spring garden inspiration mown path through meadow

6) Plan a new/revised planting border

Do you want more colour? A longer season of interest? A change? Something more striking? Fancy trying something you haven’t tried? Now is the best time of year to do that. Have a look at our “plan your own garden” blogs if you want some inspiration and an approach, or just pull together images of things that inspire you and get a professional out to sort it – either way it will delightfully while away a few hours!

spring garden inspiration mown path through meadow

7) Edge the lawns and borders (and mulch!)

At this time of year when everything looks a bit messy and miserable there is a deep pleasure in imposing some order on it by re-edging the lawns. If you can, also mulch with anything you can get hold of – a nice rotted compost is ideal, but composted bark chip, cocoshells, or the remains of your crumbling compost heap are all good alternative

spring garden inspiration mown path through meadow

8)   Enjoy the signs of Spring

Ok this does require a bit of a gap in the rain, but to remind yourself that life is going on out there, have a walk round with a cuppa and have a look at what bulbs are coming up where. You don’t need to do anything, just observe and enjoy, think about the lovely Spring display you will have! Don’t worry about them being under leaves and the like – that will keep them protected. If it is a new garden and you don’t know what is there, it’s a great time to just check if there are areas it’s worth keeping dogs/children/feet off for a while and marking these with sticks/pots/anything that comes to hand to protect the bulbs until they are easier to see.

spring garden inspiration for hedgerows

9) Check fencing, hard landscaping and trees

While you are out there…check your fencing and for loose slabs and bricks. Fencing that is rotting or flapping is best replaced sooner rather than later as once the wind hits it can pull the whole line down. Similarly – loose slabs can be dangerous and are best sorted asap. Try to get a handyman/landscaper now as they will get completely rammed the second there is a sunny day! Take photos of what needs doing and go and wrap up in the warm and find someone to sort it out, or order materials if you are up for sorting it yourself.

Check tree ties while you are out there – this isn’t rocket science – if the tree tie is cutting into the bark it needs to come off/be loosened. If the tree has been in a couple of seasons remove it. The purpose of a tree tie is not to stop the top swaying but to prevent the root from rocking – if the root ball isn’t moving under provocation it has done its job – leaving it too long it causes more problems than it solves!

10) Dream a little

Winter is a good time to think hard about what worked well in your garden last year, what you remember looking good, what you recall wishing you had, and leafing through the books/internet to explore what you might want to change for the coming year. There are many ideas that you can try out before going for, but planning early is a good idea. If it’s a full redesign then consider getting someone to assist by building you a full 3D model of your space and working with you to plan it, or look at our “how to design your own garden” blogs – there’s plenty there to get you started. If you have always fancied a hot tub there are companies that will hire you an inflatable one, and if you want a reading nook or a secondary seating space consider putting an old table and chairs in those positions for a season to see how you use them (ebay is brilliant for picking up old tales and chairs for this purpose – you can paint them if you fancy something bright and cheery).  Start jottings, log in a book or an online app like Google Keep with things you like, or start a dropbox folder or pinterest board for image ideas you want to hang onto….most of all, enjoy the dream…!

spring garden inspiration mown path through meadow

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