January in the Flower Field
Like the bulbs, I am starting to emerge. Having spent the last few weeks hunkered down in front of the fire, not doing much more than making lists, I’ve suddenly got the urge to crack on.
But the field is sodden and, although I have spent a couple of hours pulling out the great clumps of nettles threatening to strangle the ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ peonies (nettles always know how to inflict the greatest pain), any planting, digging or weeding tends to do more harm than good at this time of year so I’m trying to resist.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t jobs to be done. Whether you have a small cutting patch or, like me, an acre to clear and prepare before the spring, there are a few January jobs that will stand you in good stead for later, while simultaneously satisfying that need to get gardening.
January is all about the planning. Take it from one who knows, just buying everything gorgeous in the Sarah Raven catalogue, sowing all the seeds in March, then losing track of what needs resowing later leads to gluts, bare patches and - if this is how you make your living - panic. It’s really worth taking the time to work out how many sowings of each of your varieties you’re going to make and marking the dates in your diary. Annuals can be sown right up until the beginning of June, so if you want to still be cutting cornflowers in September, you’ll need to plan two or three sowings. If you’re not a fan of a spreadsheet, try buying yourself a pack of lovely coloured pencils and drawing your cutting patch - good stationery never fails to motivate.
Check regularly on autumn-sown hardy annuals. Inevitably, you’ll have lost a few - some succumb to the cold, some get too damp and rot - but there is nothing more cheering than a bench full of seedlings doing well on a sunny January day and an image in your head of the glory they’ll soon bring. If you sowed them in pots, check for roots coming out of the bottom and pot on if necessary. And if you have a polytunnel or greenhouse and space to plant a few undercover, do so now for early cutting. Love-in-the-mist in April, anyone?
Similarly, anemones and ranunculus planted in pots in the autumn will need potting on. You can either then plant them outside when it warms up a bit or leave them in the pots. Anemones don't like to dry out so keep them moist - but not sodden. They might well bud up quite soon, at which point you could start to feed them every couple of weeks to encourage lots of flowers. Ranunculus also work well in pots. Lots of grit is the key as they don't like to sit in the wet.
If you lifted your dahlias in the autumn, don’t forget to check them occasionally. They need to stay slightly damp. Think about when you open a new bag of potting compost - it’s cold to the touch but not wet. That’s the level of moisture you’re aiming for. Any wetter than that and the tubers may rot. If any of them do have soft, rotten spots, chuck them - they will only infect the others.
Itching to get sowing? My general advice would be to hold back, but there are a few things you can be getting on with. Sweet peas can be sown now for an early display. Root-trainers, loo rolls or just any tall pot are best, as they like a long root run. Soak the seeds overnight to soften them, then sow them about an inch deep and protect them from mice. Most importantly, choose varieties for scent rather than stem length - sweet peas are for sticking your nose in. If you want long stems for bouquets, grow them as cordons (I will try and remember to write about how that’s done later in the spring).
Cobaea scandens is a beautiful climber, with delicate foliage as beautiful as its flowers, but it can be a bit of a blighter to get to flower before the season’s up, so sow now or in February. If you have a heated propagator, that will help but if not a warm windowsill will do. Likewise, snapdragons can be started now. The seeds are minute, so sow as thinly as you can. You’ll probably still end up with a clump of tiny seedlings that seem impossible to split, but wait long enough and they’ll get to a size where pulling them apart gets easier. They’re worth the effort.
Hellebores should be budding up now and may even be starting to flower. Cutting the leaves back allows the light in and lets you see the blooms. Next month, I’ll talk about how to get the best vase life out of them.
If you didn’t get round to planting all your tulips, don’t panic. It’s not too late. I’d get them planted as soon as you can, though.They will probably flower later but that’s no bad thing as it will just extend your cropping. If, like us, you’ve lost bulbs before to mice or voles, don’t lose heart. Put them in pots and protect with fine metal mesh until they start to shoot up. A layer of grit is supposed to deter voles but I’m not sure. This year, we have planted our bulbs in large wooden crates off the ground. I am also trying glaring menacingly at any mice I see. I’ll let you know how that goes...
And when you’ve done all that, pour yourself a glass of wine, thumb through a few of those catalogues dropping through the door and dare to dream. Not long now ‘til you’re stood with the warmth of the sun on your shoulders, in a cloud of flowers you’ve grown yourself. Cheers!
Next month: pruning the roses, planting a fedge, cutting hellebores and the first anemones.