About this time in winter we growers tend to get the 'gardener's itch'. This isn't a malady needing a lotion from the chemist, but the desire to DO something in a garden that is doing nothing much, and won't be for a few weeks yet. Yes, you can plant broad beans, potatoes, liliums, clematis, an abundance of bare-rooted deciduous trees and bushes, and for that matter, even potted evergreens. Once we were advised to wait for spring in cold climates, but gardening wisdom now says that planting as soon as possible after the shortest day i.e. as the days are lengthening, will sped up the eventual growth in spring.
But when you have filled up the garden, it is tempting to give in to some classic gardening mistakes...
I've had to restrain myself lately from fertilising every tree we have. Feeding plants that aren't actively growing much is a good way to over-fertilise them, and burn the young roots. Wait till the first spring shoots appear THEN feed, and water in well. Never feed on dry soil unless you have the hose at hand.
I love mulch, but most plants do not love mulch in winter. Mulch actually attracts frost, rather than protecting them like a nice soil blanket as you might expect. Mulch will also inhibit the soil warming up, plus cold moist mulch placed against trunks in winter produces the perfect conditions for collar rot in spring. You'll be killing your garden with kindness.
Over-eager pruning is also a danger at this time of year. Winter was once a pruner's delight. Now we know that pruning cuts heal fastest in spring to early summer, and winter pruning can lead to diseases invading branch, then trunk, then roots. Some trees, in fact, should be pruned as little as possible, like cherries and apricots. Restrain your desire to 'tame the hedge' too - hedges should be pruned little and often, and a hard prune back in winter may lead to a branch or two dying, which is a sad look for a hedge. Never prune back beyond the leaf twigs - that's a sure way to get die-back.
Don't try to 'tidy' weeping roses or fruit trees by giving them a nice even haircut, either. You'll end up with a mass of twiggy growth and far fewer blooms. Instead, prune branches right back to the trunk, and twiggy growth on branches right back to the branch. Then, and only then, consider trying to level the branches, though unless you intend to do this every few weeks, don't bother. The branches will put out leaves and shoots at different rates anyway, plus weepers look best with slightly uneven hemlines, just like haute couture dress designs.
Hold back on pruning any roses just now, too, unless they are rambling monsters threatening visitors with their thorns. Early rose pruning will stimulate early leaf growth, which may be cut back by the late frosts we invariably get. That die-back may spread, though it probably won't. If it was common there'd be few rose bushes left in Canberra, as almost all have probably been attacked at some time by an over-eager winter pruner. Wait till August, when pruning will inhibit leaf and bud growth till after frosts - exactly what is needed in our climate.
Some roses shouldn't be pruned at all till they have bloomed in spring, as they only flower once a year. Pruning now equals no blooms for a whole year. Other roses, like banksia roses, shouldn't have their branches cut back even then, or they end up looking as if they've had a permanent, really terrible haircut. Instead, cut unwanted branches off at the main stem.
Check before you water in winter. If the soil isn't dry, don't water. Especially don't water lawns. Most lawns have hollows that can become boggy patches. Sodden grass roots may die, and the dead patches host moulds that may spread. If your daily routine involves holding the hose, find another hobby for the cold months.
Far Too Plenteous Planting
The cure for Gardener's Itch? Plant - just a little. Try just a handful of liliums under deciduous trees or roses. They like their feet in the shade and their heads in the sun and are perfect. Treat yourself to a single clematis with magnificently gaudy and enormous flowers. Surely you've got a naked wall or post or fence that could do with some spectacular spring colour, and autumn too and break through flowers in summer if you're lucky.
Every kitchen needs a supply of shallots or spring onions near the kitchen door, or a prostrate rosemary that will spill over a wall or out of a hanging basket. Just get yourself to a garden centre and I bet you the first picking of the mulberries just beginning to leaf down on the flat that you'll a few plants you suddenly find room for, under the roses or between the paving stones or to colonise the footpath...
...except it is entirely too easy to forget that what looks like sunny bare spots in winter now may become thickly shaded when summer's leaves grow. Maybe the best possible gardening job to do now is to find a warm window, and sit looking out, with a cup of something good, and daydream of spring and summer to come.
This week I am:
- Planting a new cross between a cherry and a plum, which looks delicious on the label. It's a large, sturdy bare-rooted tree, so might just give at least one fruit this year, and we can see what it actually tastes like.
- Carefully not picking the first yellow daffodils of spring, but filling vases with paperwhite jonquils instead.
- Trying to find a fence with both sunlight and moisture where I can plant a couple of chokoes that have begun to sprout.
- Hoping the powerful owls slightly reduce our juvenile possum population, including the two who have denuded the Seville orange at one end of the garden, fruit, leaves and all, and the giant calamondin tree at the other.
- Trying to give away Tahitian limes.
- Not buying any liliums or clematis, as both need water and these last two damp years won't continue. Or maybe we could fit in just a few, for outside the back door, where they can share the shower water.