The Garden in January 2024
Firstly, may I wish you all the very best for 2024 not just in your gardens but for all that you are involved in. As I look forward to the new year but see all the problems which we face in this world of ours all I feel that I really know for certain is that although our gardens can’t solve any of these problems they will provide us with some peace, quiet, relaxation as well as exercise and just somewhere to get away from it all and to enjoy nature in all its beauty. For everyone the new year is a new beginning and to some extent an unknown but for gardeners there is something reassuring about the cyclical pattern of the gardening year to come. We know for certain that spring will arrive with all its promise of joys to come and that it will be followed by the bounty of summer, the fading beauty of autumn and the chill and dormancy of winter. We also know that the seasons will all bring their own delights to raise the spirits and excite the eye but we also know that none of it will be exactly the same as last year which is equally important. Will my runner beans do as well in 2024?- probably not but something else will take their place and this unknown element is part of the thrill of the new gardening year to come.
Two of my favourite ‘winter’ plants- the fascinating Witch Hazel and the elegant Snowdrop
Looking back through past January blogs (found under ‘show tags’ and ‘monthly garden guides) I see that in 2021 I was looking for signs in the garden of the earliest flowers of the year. These included the very early bulbs, Snowdrops (Galanthus) and Winter Aconites (Eranthis hyemalis), Hellebores, Witch Hazel (Hamamelis), the Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas), Mahonia and Viburnum x bodnantense as well as the promise of flowers to come from the swelling buds of Magnolia, Christmas Box (Sarcococca) and Camellia. As for January ‘jobs’ I mentioned tidying beds and borders when the weather permits, pruning deciduous shrubs and trees, treating trellis and fences and cleaning the greenhouse, pots and trays ready for the new growing season. In 2022 I was thinking again about the way in which we garden and the idea that we ought to consider using less plastic, concrete and other impermeable materials, reducing our use of chemicals in all forms and review our use of water in the garden- more on which I will return to later in this blog. In particular I was appealing to us all to look upon our soil as our main garden asset and to improve it by the addition of more organic material (but not peat!), less digging and fewer chemicals. The 2022 blog also included a visit to the dormant gardens at Aberglasney where the ‘bare bones’ ie. the structure of the gardens was clear to see together with some plant highlights which are always to be found there whatever the time of year. In the 2023 blog I looked in more detail at the two early flowering bulbous plants, Snowdrops and Winter Aconites, the ‘winter stem’ Dogwoods, some good winter flowering shrubs including Honeysuckles (Lonicera), Cornus mas and Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) as well as a winter flowering tree, Prunus x subhirtella. It also included the first of twelve month by month items on ‘Bee Friendly’ plants as recommended in a RHS article. Finally in January 2021 I posted the first of two blogs on ‘Creating Garden Ponds’ (to be found on the ORL website under ‘news/blogs’, ‘show tags’ and ‘gardening tips’) in which I concentrated on the siting and construction of ponds, leaving the planting and ‘bringing to life’ of ponds to a second blog which was posted in February 2021.
Our small pond in 2018 in its very early days and again in May 2022
Following on from my section on Ivies (Hedera) last month as one of my three native ‘Christmas’ plants I came across a fascinating article on Ivies and their uses in the garden in the December 2023 issue of ‘The Garden’, the monthly magazine from the RHS. The article was by Alexandra Sana who works at RHS Wisley looking after the Walled Garden and Ivy Collection. In her words Ivies are ‘infinitely variable, colourful, tough, wonderful for wildlife, evergreen and easy to love’. Hederas first began to be grown commercially in Britain in the 18th century but the range available to gardeners was boosted greatly by the Americans in the early 20th century with the development of compact, branching cultivars commonly known as the Pittsburgh Ivies. Today there are more than 400 cultivars in existence and this vast choice and ease of cultivation makes them very useful plants for modern gardeners. They vary in leaf colour and pattern, leaf shape and texture, size and habit as well as showing both juvenile and adult growth features. They can also tolerate full shade and dry conditions and as evergreens can offer interest all year round. Those that are allowed to mature produce nectar-rich autumn flowers followed by winter berries of great value to both insects and birds. Their branches and close-knit leaves also provide shelter and cover for a wide range of birds, mammals and invertebrates. Alexandra’s top ten picks are:-
‘Midas Touch’- bright yellow variegation, good for pots and hanging baskets
‘Dragon Claw’- large leaves, pale to dark green with curly edges turning red in winter
‘Rona’- Finely stippled, lemon-yellow variegations, tolerant of dry shade
‘Goldfinch’- small, golden-leaved variety, excellent for pots or groundcover for small areas
‘Ivalace’- small and compact with glossy, dark green leaves with curly margins
‘Clotted Cream’- large, dark green, 5-lobed leaves with wavy, narrow white margins for the house
‘Colin’- small, green ruffed leaves, great for adding texture to plantings in shady areas
‘Pink ‘n’ Curly’- curled leaves which become pink on the undersides in summer, great for pots
‘Glymii’- the best of the ‘purple’ Ivies with light green veins on glossy leaves
‘White Ripple’- elegant Ivy bearing pale green leaves with white margins and long, narrow lobes
Excellent for brightening up a shady corner
In an extension to the article RHS botanist, James Armitage, explored in more depth the two stages of growth which Ivies demonstrate- the juvenile vegetative phase and the adult reproductive phase which are clearly seen in the wild with Hedera helix our native species. In the juvenile phase leaves are small and lobed and stems long, slender and scrambling. Eventually after 10 years or so and if growing well and in good light the plant enters adulthood and the stems become thick and woody and the leaves broad, leathery and entire (unlobed) and in due course clusters of flowers and fruit are produced. Most modern cultivars are in the juvenile phase partly because the leaves are more attractive in this phase but also because it is much easier to propagate from cuttings in this phase. However, even these if allowed to mature will eventually reach the adult stage and become quite different plants.
Another article which caught my eye recently was from the Daily Telegraph in November by Matthew Appleby. In it he was considering ways in which to make gardens more weather resistant in these times of more and more weather extremes. We have known for some time that climate change is resulting in higher temperatures and drier spells during the growing season as well as extending the length of the growing season as a whole. As a result most gardeners are already aware that conserving water by using what we have sensibly ie, watering in the early morning or in the evening and watering directly to the roots of plants rather than onto the foliage to reduce water loss through evaporation, is the way forward. Storing as much rainfall as we can in times of plenty is the other side of the equation and particularly so as hose pipe bans become more frequent. The obvious method of storage is by the use of water butts- the more the better- but we often overlook the best ‘water butt’ which we have which is actually our soil and there are several ways in which it can be helped to collect and retain moisture. Keeping an open soil structure into which water can soak easily rather than running off across the surface and possibly causing soil erosion is a key idea. This can be helped by shallow soil cultivation with a hoe which prevents an impermeable crust forming at the surface but the main method has to be the addition of plenty of organic matter to the soil surface. This encourages the soil organisms especially the earthworms to ‘work’ the soil naturally which creates gaps between soil particles allowing water to penetrate more easily and deeply. In addition the organic matter has the ability to hold onto the water and to make it available to the plant roots. Once the water is in the soil the trick is to keep it there for plants to use it as required and one way to do this is to use some form of surface covering that allows rainfall to penetrate easily but reduces loss by evaporation at drier times. Organic mulches of compost, bark and wood chips are ideal and have the added benefit of being slowly incorporated into the soil and increasing its water holding capacity. Inorganic coverings include permeable mats of fabric or plastic which can be covered by gravel, larger pebbles or bark/wood chip.
Having said all this about conserving and retaining water in the garden I think it is also clear to most people now that there are increasingly times when our gardens face an excess of rainfall which can lead to waterlogging and on slopes even soil erosion. One way of trying to mitigate such problems is to make use of the mulches mentioned above which will give the soil at least some protection from heavy rain. Another way is to retain undulations in the garden rather than flattening them out which provides places for excess water to pool temporarily and helps slow water movement down and reduce the chance of soil erosion. On a larger scale digging an unlined pond and allowing its water level to rise and fall naturally can be very effective. Finally in gardens where excess water is a frequent problem the creation of soakaways, gravel-filled ditches, in order to move water away from the house or special parts of the garden may have a part to play.
In a separate article in the same newspaper several garden designers and horticulturalists gave some other useful ideas on making our gardens more weather resistant. The first was to avoid the use of ‘fake’ grass which apart from being of little, if any, use to wildlife also allows micro-plastics to leak into the soil and will reduce the penetration of rainfall if the sub-base is not laid properly. A second expert highlighted the choice of more resilient plants- resistant to flood, drought and tolerant of temperatures down to -20C and up as high as 40c. At least one show garden at Chelsea in 2024 by Ann-Marie Powell will feature many of these plants and will be well worth looking out for. On the theme of too much water another expert suggested the use of raised beds which drain well particularly if they are not compacted by walking on them as well as choosing the right plants for particularly wet areas such as Iris siberica, moisture-loving Primulas (P. japonica and P. bulleyana) and shrubs such as Cotoneaster and Cornus. A third suggestion was to make gardens as naturalistic as possible ie, to concentrate on the ‘soft’ landscape which is much better at absorbing water rather than the ‘hard’ landscape and to ensure that any essential areas of hard landscaping are permeable rather than impermeable. The fourth idea is a longer-term plan but one which makes perfect sense- to plant more trees. Their canopies help protect the soil from heavy rain and slow down the arrival of water at the surface and their complex and extensive root networks help water to penetrate more deeply into the soil. Particularly resistant trees for wet areas include Sorbus ‘Olympic Flame’, Acers, Malus, Betula and Liquidamber. The final suggestion for making the garden more weather resistant was one which I have mentioned many times before- look after the soil. This included no-dig gardening with the regular addition of organic matter to the soil surface to produce a good soil structure and the planting of green manures in the autumn to cover the ground over the winter months.
Hopefully the above will encourage you to consider making your own gardens a little less vulnerable to extremes of weather which sadly it seems are going to be increasingly common in the coming years.
That’s all for this month’s blog but I will, of course, be back in February with some more thoughts and ideas to keep you busy in the garden.
Once again my very best wishes for you all in 2024.