It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s dark, it’s dismal, but don’t let that put you off. Instead, there’s plenty that can be done in the garden or allotment this month to help lay the foundations for a year of homegrown beauty and delicious produce. See below for some inspiration. . .
Snowdrop season has already begun with some of the early varieties now in flower including Galanthus “Atkinsii”, “Castlegar”, “Mrs Macnamara”, “Magnet” and “Lapwing”.
One of the many wonderful things about these dainty bulbous plants is that they grow very happily in small pots, troughs and window boxes, making them an excellent choice for tiny gardens where every inch of growing space matters.
At this time of year, you'll find pots of them for sale in good Irish garden centres, while specialist suppliers such as Carlow-based Altamont Plants and online supplier Field of Blooms (fieldofblooms.ie) stock a wide choice of varieties.
Over the coming weeks many of Ireland's famous snowdrop gardens, including Altamont in Co Carlow (carlowtourism.com), Blarney Castle in Co Cork (blarneycastle.ie) and Burtown in Co Kildare (burtownhouse.ie), will also be opening their gates to the public, giving everyone the opportunity to enjoy the magical sight of these dainty harbingers of spring blooming en-masse.
Wondering how to maximise productivity in your polytunnel for year-round seasonal produce? From sowing very early crops of parsnips in loo rolls to growing the perfect tomatoes, north Dublin-based organic food grower and environmentalist Nicky Kyle's blog is a treasure trove of useful information and advice where she shares her long experience of organic food growing and her passion for polytunnel gardening throughout the year. See nickykylegardening.com.
Prune rose bushes
Choose a dry, crisp winter’s day to do this, arming yourself with a good, sharp secateurs and a long-armed loppers and making sure to wear old clothes, a long-sleeved jacket and a pair of thorn-resistant gloves. When it comes to deciding which branches to prune, the cardinal rule is that of the three Ds (dead, diseased and/or damaged).
So remove any branches that are obviously discoloured and brittle and any that show signs of injury or that are weak or spindly, cutting these right down to ground level. Do the same with very old growth or any that are crossing or rubbing against each other. Healthy branches should be cut back by a third to a half and to just above an outer bud.
If you spot any “suckers” (very thorny branches that grow from the rootstock on to which the variety is grafted), dig very gently down to where they’re emerging from the rootstock and then pull them cleanly away before backfilling with soil.
Order rose bushes
Rose plants were also in very short supply in many Irish garden centres last year, with many fashionable varieties proving difficult to source. So if you've spent far too many months lusting after the lushly beautiful "Julia's Rose" (a David Austin classic) or dreaming of the caramel-coloured flowers of "Koko Loko", then you'll be pleased to know that the following Irish growers/suppliers are all well worth checking out for their excellent ranges of roses: O'Driscoll Garden Centre, Thurles (see Facebook page); Carlow-based Altamont Plants, altamontplants.com; Cork-based McNamara Roses (021-4613733); Cork-based Future Forests (futureforests.ie) and Dublin-based Mr Middleton (mrmiddleton.com).
Bear in mind that at this time of the year, rose plants can be purchased as both container-grown and bare-root specimens. Order them soon to guarantee the widest choice, but hold off planting if ground conditions are waterlogged or frozen.
Before planting, take the time to choose a good growing spot and to prepare the ground really well. As a general rule, roses do best in a deep, fertile, weed-free soil enriched with well-rotted manure and or garden compost and in a sheltered, sunny position.
Order dahlia tubers while stocks of the choicest, most hard-to-get varieties are still high. Although these won’t be delivered for a couple more months (their fleshy tubers are very sensitive to frosty temperatures, which is why suppliers like to hold off delivering them until spring), you’ll get the pick of the bunch by ordering early.
Recommended specialist suppliers include Dublin-based Mr Middleton (mrmiddleton.com) and UK-based Peter Nyssen (peternyssen.com). When choosing varieties, bear in mind that some kinds of dahlias are naturally better suited to our cool, damp summers than others. Examples include the beautiful "Burlesca", "Jowey Winnie" and "Linda's Baby", which are much more resilient to rain damage than the large, decorative, dinner-plate types like "Café au Lait".
Plant some Lenten roses
Hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus) are one of the joys of the winter/early spring garden, with many plants coming into extra early bloom this year because of the mild winter. To keep them looking their best and to protect the emerging flowers and fresh foliage from disfiguring diseases such as leaf spot, it’s important to remove the old foliage at this time of year by cutting it right back to ground level, then bagging it and removing it off-site.
This is also a good time of year to buy hellebores, as many Irish garden centres stock the plants in flower so you can be sure of exactly what you’re getting. When it comes to planting hellebores, bear in mind that while these ultra-hardy, long-lived perennials are often described as shade lovers, they’ll also do well in full sunshine as long as they’re given a fertile, moist but well-drained soil enriched with plenty of organic matter.
Scents of summer
If you didn’t get around to sowing sweet pea seed last autumn, then a January sowing of this hardy annual will still give you strong, vigorous plants that should be in flower by June.
For best results, pre-chit the seed by wrapping it in a few sheets of damp kitchen paper and then placing it in a small, lidded, plastic container in a cool room for a few days. Once they show signs of sprouting, gently transplant into individual pots (7.5-10cm diameter) or root-trainers filled with a good-quality seed compost, to a maximum depth of 15mm; water well and place them somewhere cool and bright, making sure to protect the seed/emerging baby seedlings from rodents.
Once their root systems are well-established, baby sweet pea plants will tolerate temperatures as low as -5 degrees but need some form of protection such as fleece if it goes lower. For strong, floriferous plants, plant them into their permanent positions outdoors in late March and give them a weed-free, rich, moisture-retentive soil in full sun with protection from slugs.
If you plan on growing your sweet pea in containers, give the plants a generous-sized pot (20-litre minimum, with good drainage holes) filled with a soil-based general-purpose compost enriched with well-rotted manure.
The combined challenges of Brexit and the pandemic continue to pose difficulties for Irish gardeners as regards sourcing seed of some favourite varieties of flowers and vegetables. So it’s a good idea to get your seed orders in as soon as possible before the busy spring sowing season.
Recommended Irish specialist suppliers include: the organic vegetable seed producer Cork-based Brown Envelope Seeds (brownenvelopeseeds.com); Sligo-based Green Vegetable Seeds (greenvegetableseeds.com); Clare-based Irish Seed Savers (irishseedsavers.ie); Cork-based Fruithill Farm (fruithillfarm.com, great for organic seed potatoes, onion sets); Waterford-based GIY (giy.ie); Sligo-based QuickCrop (quickcrop.ie); Galway-based Seedaholic (seedaholic.com); and Dublin-based Mr Middleton (mrmiddleton.com).
You'll also find a handful of micro-Irish suppliers selling their home-saved organic seed on Seedie (seedie.ie), a new digital marketplace established by Madeline McKeever for Irish-produced vegetable and flower seeds. While most UK-based suppliers no longer deliver to Ireland, some of the great EU-based specialist seed suppliers well worth checking out include German firm Jelitto (jelitto.com), and Dutch firms Vreeken's Seeds (vreeken.nl) and Muller's Seeds (mullerseeds.com).
Date for your diary
January 19th (7.30pm-9pm), "From the Garden to the Vase", a Zoom Talk on growing and arranging garden flowers in a sustainable way by this writer, Fionnuala Fallon, on behalf of the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland. See rhsi.ie