In the first of a new series, garden writer Marc Rosenberg, who has been gardening for 30 years and has contributed to the STIHL blog since 2018, shares what he’s sowing and growing with a diary from his small suburban garden. Bolstering food security by ordering vegetable seeds and keeping winter bedding blooming top the agenda for January…
When the decorations come down, the tree goes out into the garden for shredding and reality dawns that January is upon us, we can be forgiven for feeling a little glum. Long before Covid threw the world into turmoil, newspapers relished in reporting about Blue Monday – usually the third Monday of the New Year – which is claimed to officially be the most depressing day in the calendar (it’s on 18th January this year, in case you wondered).
I’ve always found that the best way to deal with this annual onslaught of gloom, apart from tearing up your newspaper and adding it to the compost heap, or using it to light a cosy winter fire, is to glance out of the window. Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or one of the three million people who the Horticultural Trades Association believes has taken up gardening during the pandemic, you cannot help but notice that the evenings are growing lighter. The Winter Solstice is behind us and a new gardening season is unfolding – and that has to be a cause for optimism. Here’s a look at my suburban gardening action plan for January.
Beat shortages – order seed now
I started growing flowers, fruit and vegetables from seed long before I was old enough to drive a car and it’s one of the greatest joys of gardening. Browsing seed catalogues and websites has always been an annual remedy for banishing mid-winter blues, but getting orders in early this year is especially important. Last year, I struggled to get hold of many gardening essentials – especially first and second early seed potatoes, onion sets and some vegetable seeds – mostly because of lockdown, but also due to unprecedented demand that resulted in suppliers struggling to keep up with demand.
Last spring, one big seed supplier witnessed a 1000 per cent rise in orders while other seed merchants had to impose queuing systems on their websites as demand for veg seed soared by 500 per cent. The popularity of vegetable gardens is expected to be high again this year as the spectre of food shortages hangs over us because of Brexit and the Covid-related chaos that paralysed ports ahead of Christmas. Whatever the long-term outcome of our departure from the EU, reports claim that a quarter of Britain’s food is imported from Europe, with fresh produce susceptible to perishing if logjams at the UK’s ports remain unresolved.
Seed houses have stockpiled supplies, but this year I’m prioritising veg seeds over flowers. Fast turnaround crops such as cut-and-come-again salad leaves are top of the list (they can be grown on window sills during winter months and, in summer months, will be ready in as little as 25 days). Then there are veg plot staples such as tomatoes, runner beans, sweetcorn, carrots, peas and sweet peppers. Mushroom growing kits are fascinating and fun, while onions sets (small bulbs in an arrested state of development) are a much quicker and more rewarding route to a bumper crop than growing tear-jerkers from seed. It’s also worth buying a bag or two of multipurpose and seed compost now, even though it’s too early to sow because compost was the gardening world’s equivalent of toilet paper last spring – fast to sell out!
Tackle box blight
Box was once one of the most dependable and stately slow-growing evergreens that gardeners could buy. Often sold as neatly clipped pyramids or balls, it was a must for sprucing-up doorways or lining pathways, with dense growth adding a new dimension to winter gardens when dusted with frost or snow.
Unfortunately, one of the box that I relied on to brighten up my drab front door has fallen foul of box blight – a disease that has run riot across the UK in recent years and secured its position in the Royal Horticultural Society’s annual top 10 chart of the worst plant wreckers.
I should have spotted the tell-tale symptoms sooner: leaves dying and falling, the spread of bare patches and dieback on young stems. While cutting back minor outbreaks can help to rescue healthy plants, my miniature topiary will have to be binned or burnt (never add diseased plants to compost heaps), with fallen leaves cleared promptly and containers washed with garden disinfectant.
If you grow box, I strongly advise inspecting plants without delay. Watering at the base of plants instead of splashing foliage can reduce the risk of box blight outbreaks (the disease thrives in wet, humid conditions) while clipping infrequently results in less dense growth that permits greater air movement – another factor that can cut outbreaks. Combining these actions with the use of an approved garden fungicide can assist with control.
Frozen lawns are snow joke!
Having grown up in an era when harsh winters with snowfall were the norm, I look back fondly on childhood memories of trudging through the white stuff and building a snowman on the lawn. So, with winter whiteouts becoming a rarity due to climate change, why are we increasingly told to keep off frozen turf? Have we become a nation of killjoys?
In fact, frost or snow on its own is unlikely to damage turf, while snow can provide a protective blanket during bitter winter weather. But when we walk on icy lawns, our boots can compact and fracture frozen grass leaves, rupturing cells and resulting in damage – that’s why unsightly footprints commonly appear after a thaw. It’s worth remembering that 80 per cent of a grass plant lies beneath the soil surface, in the form of roots, and that’s what gives lawns a remarkable ability to bounce back after periods of stress. However, the easiest way to prevent damage is to build a snowman or have a snowball fight on driveways or hard standings. Your lawn will thank you for it come spring.
Boost winter bedding and health check for hellebores
On a cold, windswept day in November, I took refuge in the greenhouse and planted up containers for winter colour, using conifers, skimmia, cyclamen, pansies, violas and ivy for season-long interest. It’s essential to regularly deadhead the pansies and violas to keep new blooms coming (especially as some violas can be wonderfully scented) but it’s just as important to avoid overwatering to prevent outbreaks of grey mould (botrytis). Miniature cyclamen are vulnerable, with mould causing stems, flowers and leaves to rot and collapse, so I’m removing even mildly diseased plant material promptly.
I’ve also made a note to check hellebores (Christmas rose) for signs of disease between now and spring. Hellebores are unbeatable for reliable, cheery displays of mid-winter flowers, but leaf spot disease is common, especially when plants put on new growth from late winter, resulting in ugly brown patches on foliage which can easily infect and destroy stems. The best remedy is to cut away and bin all affected leaves without delay, carefully clearing all dead material from the ground – it’ll help to avoid further problems next season.
What are you planning to do in your garden this month? What gardening jobs do you do in January? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Marc Rosenberg bio
Marc Rosenberg is a freelance garden writer and editor. A former journalist with Amateur Gardening and Horticulture Week magazines, he holds seven Garden Media Guild Awards. Marc has written for publications including The Garden magazine, BBC Gardeners’ World and RHS online.