Venturing outside in filthy weather to plant anything during the dormant season surely cannot be called anything but a giant leap of faith. This should be the season for languishing inside with a hot cup of coffee and eagerly checking the post every morning for the arrival of seed catalogues which allow us to fantasise about spring. Even Shakespeare despaired of the bare nothingness of winter in his Sonnet 5:
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there;
Sap cheque’d with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where.
Gardening in the summer sun is easy when immediate growth is a rapid reward for time and effort put in. But to take something like a bare-rooted fruit tree, which is to all intents and purposes a dead-looking stick, and to lavish time and care on planting it carefully can sometimes seem an act of folly. It occurred to me, whilst trying to clumsily rub some life back into my frozen hands beneath gardening gloves heavily coated in frosty clay mud, that an awful lot of winter gardening chores fall into this category. Take pruning for example. I’ve spent that last weekend pruning all of our woody stems, so raspberry canes, rose bushes and fruit trees. It feels a bit farcical to walk up to a naked tree wielding a pair of secateurs and to snip bits off the bare branches and to find that after a couple of hours work, you’re basically left with the same dormant and unproductive plants, only now with slightly shorter branches. Last year we planted an orchard of 30 fruit trees and I became obsessive about the appearance of buds. Every morning I’d don my wellies and tramp up to the orchard to peer crossly at the small, spindly and naked branches of our tree, willing them into life. But spring cannot be rushed, and so the winter planting gardener must wait for months at a time to see whether all of their efforts will be repaid. When we started to build our smallholding, we quickly realised that winters were going to be almost as busy as summers. There seems to be an endless list of chilly tasks that need to be completed before spring arrives and the plants get back to the important business of waking, and none of them are really that appealing when the temperature dips below zero. Here then are the main ten tasks we’ll be trying to get done before the end of winter:
1. Prune fruit bushes, fruit trees, grape vines and rose bushes and use the woody remains to bulk up your compost pile
2. Wash out pots ready for the next sowing season in Spring
3. Mend any fencing or gates that have come loose. This kind of job gets neglected in our garden during sunnier times of the year when there are weeds to battle and so we spend a good part of the year repairing beds, patching holes in fences and doing other basic building chores.
4. Make sure that taps and hoses are insulated against freezing temperatures
5. Keep feeding the birds, as they need the calories more than ever!
6. Create a planting plan and buy only the seed you need
7. Plant bare-rooted trees, bushes and shrubs as long as the ground isn’t frozen. They won’t repay you with any buds for months yet but it’s good to get them in as soon as you can.
8. Take hardwood cuttings. This year we’re focusing on holly and also cornus and will be trying to set aside at least one bed of each so that next winter we’ll have lots of new little plants to use.
9. Sow sweet peas inside and lily bulbs in the garden whenever the weather breaks and the ground isn’t frozen
10. Lift and divide (or plant new) rhubarb and use a cloche to force some.