When winter gets serious – no more of those little squalls that send gardeners scurrying for shelter – but days of rain and numbing cold, it can seem that hibernation really is the best way to get through winter. But once all the seed and plant catalogues and the latest books have been read, what next? You can’t huddle by that fireside forever. Well, not for much longer anyway.
Gardeners know that regardless of the weather there’s always some sort of plant oriented activity to keep them occupied. There are certainly times, however, when it’s neither desirable nor advisable to be out in the garden. So, in the spirit of keeping idle hands away from more devilish tasks, here are twenty little jobs for winter. They’re a combination of indoor tasks for the really bad days and outdoor jobs for the fine spells.
1. Make a garden journal
Update the records of your planting, sowing and things to do over the next few months. Although it can be a chore to go to the trouble of writing everything down, it’s amazing how useful good records can be. How can you know when to make changes if you can’t accurately assess the results of your past efforts? Also, order or purchase any seeds that are needed and keep them in a cardboard box, filed in the order of sowing.
2. Take hardwood cuttings
Hardwood cutting of deciduous plants can be taken as soon as the last of the foliage has fallen. The cuttings are generally quite long — around 20–30 cm — inserted in beds of fine tilled soil outdoors, and simply left to develop roots on their own accord. Many conifers too can be grown from hardwood cuttings; tear them from the stem leaving a “heel” of stem wood attached. When new growth develops it’s usually a sign that the cuttings have struck. Some may develop quickly enough to be lifted in summer, otherwise transplant or pot up when dormant in the following winter. Of course, that’s tip 21: lift last year’s hardwood cuttings.
3. Clean away any fallen debris
If left to rot on the ground, fallen leaves and fruits are great breeding and overwintering sites for pests and diseases. Take the time to rake up them up and you’ll not only lessen that risk, you’ll also have some top class composting material.
4. Make compost bins
If you don’t already have compost bins, now is the time to make them — if only to take all those fallen leaves you’ve just raked up. Slatted timber bins with removable fronts allow good air circulation and are easily made. Remember to use treated timber; while H3 will do, h3 lasts far longer. A cover is a good idea in periods of heavy rain as the rain can make the conditions too cold and wet for the composting process to work properly.
5. Plant new deciduous trees and shrubs
Field grown deciduous trees and shrubs are lifted in late May or early June and arrive in the shops soon after. Roses, fruit trees, cane fruit and large specimen trees such as oaks and maples should all be available now or very soon. Remember to prepare your soil with plenty of compost well in advance of planting.
6. Know your onions
Onions, garlic and shallots are usually first planted around the shortest day. However if the soil stays wet and cold they may be slow to start into growth and could suffer from neck rots. To help prevent this, soak the seed bulbs for a couple of hours in a systemic fungicide then allow them to dry before planting.
7. Divide hardy perennials
The toughest of the herbaceous perennials can now be lifted and divided. Large clumps can be broken up with a spade or by using the time-honoured method of prising them apart with two forks back-to-back. Divide smaller clumps with a knife or by hand. Before replanting, trim any damaged roots or stems, dust them with sulphur to prevent fungal problems and work in plenty of compost. Rhubarb crowns can be lifted now. Tender perennials are best left until late winter or early spring before dividing.
8. Why wait for spring?
There are plenty of plants that will flower early if potted up and moved indoors. While it’s getting a little late now for spring bulbs, you can still lift and pot spring-flowering shrubs such as evergreen azaleas. Bringing them indoors will soon see them in bloom. Of course, you could always simply buy some potted bulbs or hardy annuals for quick indoor colour.
Apples, pears, grapes, gooseberries and other bush fruits can be pruned soon after leaf fall. Stone fruit, however, should not be pruned in winter, as the cut branches will be susceptible to invasion by silverleaf disease.
10. Feed berries, currants and other soft fruit
There’s no need for anything fancy, just a general garden fertiliser. That should encourage good growth and fruiting in the coming summer, but if the crop was poor last season try some additional sulphate of potash. And don’t forget to top it off with a decent layer of mulch, which will not only improve the soil structure but should help stop the winter rains washing the fertiliser away.
If liming is necessary it should be done now. Lawns often benefit from a light winter lime dressing. Vegetables usually appreciate an annual 250g/m² dressing of dolomite lime. Use dolomite lime or sulphur fertilisers to influence the colour of next season’s hydrangeas: lime for pink flowers, sulphur for blue.
Spraying in winter with a copper and oil mixture will kill any dormant fungal spores and overwintering insects and help to prevent any problems developing in the spring. Lime sulphur will control any lichen deposits, though I find lichen quite attractive and unless it’s really heavily coating a plant it’s unlikely to cause any problems. Don’t use lime sulphur on foliage; it’s for deciduous plants or the trunks and larger branches of evergreens.
If the soil is workable it’s a good time to dig over the vegetable garden and apply compost, fertiliser and mulches. However, avoid walking on or working over very wet soils in order to prevent compaction. If you’re in an area with heavy frosts dig with a spade and leave the large sods of earth exposed to allow the frost to break them up. This results in a fine soil that is easily raked at sowing time.
14. Feed the flowers
Feed polyanthus and primroses with dried blood and liquid fertilisers. Other hardy winter- to early spring-flowering annuals, such as pansies, violas, bellis daises and calendula will also flower better with an occasional shot of a mild general garden fertiliser or liquid feed.
15. Plant strawberries
Prepare strawberry beds and set out new plants. Strawberries can rot if left sitting on wet ground. The best way to avoid this is to plant the strawberry crowns at the top of ridges around 20 cm high by 30–40 cm wide. Because rain and wind can erode the ridges it’s a good idea to cover the soil in weed matting before planting, if you can afford it. The old stand-by — straw — is alright, but it tends to get blown all over the garden.
16. Have an indoor clean-up
Winter is a good time to clean all those pots, seedling boxes and punnets that have been thrown away still encrusted with soil. If they’re to be used again they should be cleaned out with a bleach or disinfectant solution to prevent the transmission of diseases and to kill any overwintering pests.
17. Tool maintenance
Tools are obviously great labour-savers yet we often overlook even their most basic maintenance. When the weather’s too bad to work outdoors is an ideal time for stripping down tools for sharpening, lubricating, rust removing, replacing broken handles and all those other little touch-up and repair jobs that have been held-over from summer.
18. Clean out the greenhouse
As they’re used only for summer crops such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, many home greenhouses are empty in winter. Now, while the greenhouse is empty, get stuck in and clean the glass, replace any damaged panes or plastic sheeting and, if you’re serious about disease control, sterilise the soil. Apply fertilisers after sterilising. Over years of cultivation greenhouse soils become dry and dusty. Extra humus is required and that’s best obtained from compost. If you’re sure your compost has been thoroughly rotted at a high temperature it should be disease-free, otherwise work it in before sterilising the soil.
19. Prevent waterlogged pots
Plants grow only very slowly in winter and use far less water than in summer. Those outdoor pots you could barely keep moist in summer may now be thoroughly waterlogged. Check them after the first heavy rainfall and if necessary raise them up on bricks or small timber blocks to allow the drainage holes to work properly. If that doesn’t work try moving them to a sunnier or more sheltered position.
20. Sow early seedlings
Provided you have somewhere sheltered to harden off the seedlings, you can now make your first container sowings ready for planting out in spring. Any of the following will germinate in reasonably cool conditions, such as in an airing cupboard: alyssum, Antirrhinum, Calendula, Clarkia, cornflower, forget-me-not, larkspur, Linaria, lupins, poppies, scabious, stocks, sweet peas, sweet williams and wallflowers. The short winter days can make the seedlings drawn and lanky, so make sure they get plenty of light to prevent this happening.
So there you have it. Whatever the weather there’s always something to do gardenwise.