I have definitely been having a bit of a slump in the garden just recently. This occasionally happens, even to obsessive gardening types like me: you just sort of get out of the habit, somehow.
It’s usually in the dog end of the year that I lose heart. December is a prime month. By the time I’m home from work it’s getting dark anyway; the mornings are cold and dank and there are grumpy teenagers to boot out of bed. More often than not it’s raining, the ground is soggy and all the jobs that need doing at this time of year are easily put off till later.
January, though, is a different matter. I’m not sure why, as the weather is still foul – worse, if anything, than December. Maybe it’s just the symbolic beginning of a new year. And the turning of the solstice has a lot to do with it: it’s as though the extra few minutes on the end of every day tinge the ends of my fingers a deeper shade of green as the month wears on.
So I begin to steal half an hour after work, or just after the kids have left for school, to catch up on all that is left undone and stir into life the embers of another season. Here’s what I’ll be up to this month:
Climbing apple trees: Not for fun (though it actually is, quite a lot) but to snip back last year’s growth and encourage as much fruit as I can. I only have one apple tree at the moment, my beloved Devonshire Quarrenden, and it’s a very early one so must be guzzled straight off the tree. Which is why I shall also be…
Planting new trees: I am planning three new apples for the top strip, where my orchard is sputtering into existence at last after several livestock-related setbacks. I’m after a cooker, Warner’s King – in tribute to a legendary apple tree which grew in my mum’s garden once – plus James Grieve, my all-time favourite storing apple, and Egremont’s Russet just because I adore russet apples.
Pruning blackcurrants: And autumn-fruiting raspberries: the fruit garden is in for a stern talking-to this month as it got well out of hand towards the back half of last year and became more impenetrable thicket than chi-chi fruit potager.
Sowing onions: An experiment this year, as I feel like having a go at some really good red onions, the kinds with pink flesh rather than just the red skins. Carmen sounds like a good one; or perhaps Red Brunswick. I haven’t yet found a good red onion from sets, so I’m thinking seed is the way to go.
Turning the compost: A great job for a frosty day, as you invariably end up in t-shirt sleeves and glowing pinkly: not only good for the circulation but also very cheering as it makes you feel like the weather’s much warmer than it actually is. I turn my bins about every four months, using the compost as mulch at six months old: the next batch will be ready just in time for the March feed’n’mulch routine.
Mending greenhouse glass: The football club next door has been using my greenhouse as a goalpost again and I have two or three panes to replace. I am determined to get this done now, in the quiet stillness of January, rather than leaving it till I’m filling up the greenhouse in May and everything moves into panic mode.
Building new beds: The very last corner of my veg garden is proving stubbornly difficult to get around to finishing. I’m at that pesky 90% done, 90% left to do stage: all it needs is three boards fixing into place and I’m there. This will be the month I manage it. I hope.
Raking up leaves: The otherwise robust and rudely healthy quince tree in the chicken run developed a nasty case of blight last year and I didn’t get a single quince off it. So this year I’m paying particular attention to raking up the leaves after they’ve fallen, to try to scoop up at least some of the overwintering spores in the hope that they won’t come back again next year.
Planting garlic: I have had my little garlic cloves growing away in a module tray since I sowed them in November, and now they’re bursting out of the drainage holes in the bottom so I think they can go into the ground. These are the cloves I saved from the plants that held out for longest against garlic rust last year: with luck, they’ll have a smidgen more resistance this season and I might have half a chance of actually eating some.
Planning, planning, planning: The great veg garden plan for 2017 is well under way. I am religious about using the colder months of the year to plan in detail what I’m going to do next season. It’s a good way of keeping yourself optimistic through the dead days of December; and it also saves a lot of trouble next year, too, as you know what to sow and how much of it. It is the gardening equivalent of a hot chocolate by the fire while leafing through a holiday catalogue. You just know things can only get better from here.