Late winter gardening jobs – what to do and what not to do!
Some late winter gardening jobs on the gardening ‘to do’ lists may now be outdated. Or they may not be relevant to your particular garden or gardening style.
I believe that successful, happy gardening is ultimately about working out the best approach for you. Whether you choose to do many jobs depends on what kind of a garden you have and what you want to achieve.
And then there’s your lifestyle – how much time, effort and/or budget you have. Most gardening tasks have been passed down over the years. They were established by professional gardeners in large gardens.
Professional gardens are a wonderful resource
Professional gardeners in large gardens offer us so much inspiration and information. I think they influence us even more than the garden shows. Without them to experiment with different gardening styles and techniques, our own gardens would be much the poorer.
However, they do have resources and challenges that we – as middle-sized garden gardeners – do not have. And sometimes a gardening task was established in a big professional garden over a half a century – or more – ago.
And even though times and gardening have changed, the same late winter gardening jobs are often recommended for January and February, year in, year out.
So I went though some of those gardening to do lists to see what a middle-sized garden probably should do in January or February. And I came across a few tasks I think we can cross off the list.
Feel free to disagree with me, though! All gardens are not the same.
Late winter gardening jobs – the borders
We have one main herbaceous border. This is where I pack most of the colour action in the garden. It’s sunny and we can see it from the kitchen window, so it’s usually a wonderful focus for the garden.
Not in late winter, though. In late winter, the focus is on the back of the garden where there are topiary holm oaks and holly. The silver birch trunks, the acanthus mollis ‘Rue Ledan’ and the dried heads of hydrangeas and grasses also add to the garden. But the main border is a heap of blackened stems and muddle.
Late winter gardening jobs list: Rake up winter debris…
So ‘clear up debris’ is a good reminder. We are now also urged to leave seedheads in autumn to create wonderful silhouettes in the frost and for wildlife. But many of these do start to collapse by late winter.
In a middle-sized garden, I think we can clear this winter debris away plant by plant as they disintegrate. It’ll only take a few minutes. It’s hardly worth even listing it under late winter gardening jobs. If you have several 30/40 or 50 metre long borders, it could take days, so it needs to be in the diary.
Still looking good here is the acanthus mollis ‘Rue Ledan’. And there’s even some structure from some grasses in pots, the verbena bonariensis and veronicastrum.
But ‘remove leaves from borders’?
I found ‘remove leaves from borders’ on the ‘gardening jobs for January’ list of some very well respected garden websites. But it’s generally also agreed by some of the highest horticultural authorities in the land that it’s fine to leave leaves on a border unless they’re covering up fragile alpine plants.
Our main border has several deciduous trees in it. We left the fallen leaves on this border last autumn. Two months later, they have largely disappeared. They’ve rotted down and returned their nutrition to the soil.
However I do recommend clearing leaves away from paths and places where you walk. Rotting leaves can be very slippery, especially on icy days.
Also a few last leaves have drifted down from trees onto the lawn over winter. We normally clear leaves from the lawn by running the mower over them. However, the weather has been too damp to mow, so I’ve had to rake up this last lot of leaves up.
And in case you’re thinking that the leaves from the border were blown onto the lawn, they’re different leaves. The ones on the lawn quite clearly come from the trees directly above them. There’s no sign that the leaves on the border were blown to anywhere else in the garden.
Is January too early to prune hydrangeas?
Tamsin Westhorpe of the beautiful four acre Stockton Bury gardens in Herefordshire spoke about pruning her hydrangeas in the middle of January on her Instagram feed. I immediately wondered whether I should be doing mine.
But I looked at them. They’re still contributing shape and texture to the garden, especially in the frost. I can see that they are slowly disintegrating, but I think I can leave pruning until early spring. That will be February or March, depending on your weather. And that’s when ‘prune hydrangeas’ usually appears on the gardening ‘to do’ lists.
But Tamsin says she does hers early because Stockton Bury gardens opens to the public every year from 1st April. In a garden that’s open to the public, there’s a huge amount of work, even over winter. Everything has to look better than it would in a private garden, so you can’t leave too much to the last minute.
And a four acre garden will have a lot more hydrangeas than one that is 100ft long. I’ve got about six hydrangeas, she’s probably got over 60.
There’s more about growing hydrangeas here.
So many gardening jobs can be done when it works for you, within reason, of course. There’s probably a two to three month window, depending on your weather and climate.
Is January too late to plant bulbs?
At the other end of the spectrum, what about doing gardening jobs late?
I just discovered three packets of tulips hidden under a whole load of Christmas clutter.
Gardening jobs lists would generally recommend planting bulbs in autumn. Tulips can be planted later, in early winter.
But Ulting Wick, which opens to the public via the National Garden Scheme (Essex), is famous for its tulip displays. And at Ulting Wick, they plant 10,000 tulips in January.
So I’ve planted the leftover tulips and marked them so we know exactly where they are. I’ll report back on the Middlesized Garden YouTube channel’s monthly garden tips and tours in spring.
After all, they would just rot if I left them in their packets until next autumn.
There are more answers to questions about when it’s too late to do some gardening jobs here. That includes advice on when it’s too late to trim lavender, prune roses, prune fruit trees or mow the lawn.
Prune, plant or move trees
Late winter is a good time for tree work, such as pruning, planting or moving trees. Most trees that lose their leaves in winter can be pruned in winter. Provided your ground isn’t frozen, you can also plant or move trees and shrubs then too.
We planted one silver birch and moved another last autumn. They’re in a video on How to Plant a Tree. I had a comment from someone who had planted 5 trees, one in early spring and the others in late spring. They had a very hot dry summer and although they watered all the trees, only the one planted early survived. The four planted in late spring all died.
So it really is worth planting trees in late winter or early spring rather than leaving it later.
Pruning trees – the best late winter gardening jobs
When it comes to pruning, I think this is when a proper printed book can be really helpful. You can read it in bright sunlight, and the battery doesn’t die – I just like taking the book outside and marrying up the instructions with the tree.
I recently bought Pruning & Training by Stephanie Mahon (DK Books). It features around 90 garden trees and shrubs, each with specific pruning instructions and a useful diagram showing you exactly where you cut.
There are also some useful general pruning principles too. The most important one is where you make the cut on a tree. If you cut a branch off too close to the trunk, you cut away the area which heals best. If you leave a big stub or length of branch sticking out, then the tree will sprout new shoots off it. You’ll get a congested tree. So leave a small mound.
And start by cutting under the branch. That prevents the branch from tearing itself off once you’ve sawn more than half way down.
When it comes to anything bigger than a fruit tree, I’d strongly recommend getting an expert in. I’ve heard of more serious accidents when it comes to amateurs, trees and chainsaws than any other aspect of gardening. See how to find one in how to tell the difference between an arborist, a tree surgeon and a chain saw man.
Remove weeds around the base of newly planted young trees
This seems like excellent advice. Young trees need as much nutrition as they can get. They suffer if weeds or plants take that nutrition.
And generally, if you’ve got a mild winter, which we have here, the sooner you get ahead with weeding the better. Gardening jobs lists tend not to include weeding until spring is properly here. But in mild years, weeding is a year round job.
But ‘inspect dahlia and canna tubers to stop them drying out’?
I’m really not sure what this actually means. It appeared on a number of lists of late winter gardening jobs. But nobody said what to do if you thought your dahlia tubers were drying out. Should you spray them? Water them? Let me know if you know. And there’s not much point in inspecting something if you’re not going to take any action.
I searched high and low for more advice. I discovered that it’s important to keep stored dahlia tubers just slightly moist and not too dry. It appears to be quite a narrow window. I’m glad I don’t always dig up my dahlias for winter.
I do store some. We shake off most of the earth, wrap them in newspaper, label them and put them in a dark part of the potting shed. They seem to survive.
There’s more about how to grow dahlias here.
‘Replace, tighten or slacken ties around trees and shrubs’?
In How to Plant a Tree, Jamie Butterworth says that tree ties should be removed after 1-2 years. Tree ties that are left on too long can strangle trees and cause real damage.
But the ties on wall shrubs and climbers may need replacing.
Disperse worm casts in the lawn?
There is an enormous amount written about worm casts on the lawn. There are even chemical solutions, although fortunately many have been taken off the market.
But why? I can understand people not wanting mole hills on the lawn, but what harm can be caused by such tiny mounds of earth?
As the RHS points out, worms are hugely beneficial to the soil. The activity of earth worms improves the soil structure and fertility. So ‘worm casts should be tolerated where possible’. Healthy soil is absolutely at the heart of a beautiful garden.
It’s only in absolutely perfect lawns or lawns used for sport that you’d want to do anything. Brush the casts across the lawn when dry. However, in late winter it is rarely dry here, so I don’t know why this features in lists of late winter gardening jobs.
Dig over any bare borders?
I think we’re all aware that no dig/no till has become much more widely used and respected. It’s now being used in private gardens, professional gardens and agriculture.
So I’m surprised to find instructions to dig over borders from institutions that are also promoting no dig/no till on other pages of their websites. It’s as if the gardening ‘to do’ lists have tumbleweed blowing over them. Or am I being unfair?
If you’re a no dig, no till gardener, which I am, you don’t dig your soil ever, except to make a hole to put a plant in or to pull one out.
However if you haven’t covered any bare earth with a layer of garden compost, well rotted manure, bark chippings or similar mulch, then you could do that now. You don’t need to dig it in, because worms and micro-organisms will do that for you.
The basic principle is that digging destroys soil structure and interferes with the soil’s natural fertility. More to the point (for me, anyway) digging can hurt your back. And it takes time and effort I would prefer to spend on doing other things.
See here for how to avoid knee or back pain when gardening.
Gardening tips for the rest of the year
Some gardening jobs have become outdated or been replaced by easier, more effective practices. See here for a round up of gardening jobs now.
Shop my favourite gardening tools, books and products
I’m often asked for recommendations so I’ve put together lists of the tools, books and products I use myself on the Middlesized Garden Amazon store. For example, here are some good books on growing plants, such as Hydrangeas and Dahlias, both by Naomi Slade. And Nick Bailey’s 365 Days of Colour in Your Garden is also excellent for creating year round colour in the garden.
Links to Amazon are affiliate and help support this blog, see disclosure.
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