Congratulations – we made it through January! Now we’ve just got February and March to get through and we’re home free and back out in the garden. I’m guessing most people have not yet given a huge amount of thought to the garden so far this year. As I’m writing this, mine is deep under a foot of snow. It’s easy to think of winter as the down, even dead, time for gardening.
Physically, yes, it is. But it’s a fool who will live to regret wasting this golden time in the gardening calendar. Because we’re currently not bent double rushing around at a million miles an hour out there trying to get everything done in our zero-to-60 truncated gardening season, now is precisely the time when great gardens are really made. For these winter months are the gardener’s secret weapon. Now is the time for reassessment, planning, and the under-the-radar actions that we never have the time or focus for once the temperatures and the pressure start heating up out there.
Make a plan!
For this month’s column I’m giving you some hard-earned, tried-and-tested tips and tricks for things to do now and have firmly in your wheelhouse before the outside garden picks up the pace and the wheels fall off!
First up, seed sowing time will soon be upon us. Get those catalogues, make a plan and then start ordering. Do not look at all the lovely pictures and imagine your garden instantly filled with everything. Sowing from seed takes time, and looking after your germinating seed and nurturing your seedlings requires a lot of consistent care and attention. Even the most proficient gardeners can be guilty of killing their offspring by lack of /over watering. Know your limits and push them only gently. Repeat after me: we are only going to grow what we can cope with.
Avoid the tomato tsunami
That includes at the harvesting stage. I certainly don’t want a repeat of the two-week tomato tsunami we ‘enjoyed’ last September! So, a) think about sowing a variety of seeds that will spread the joy throughout the harvest season, and b) you do not need to sow the whole packet at once. Remember, seeds store really well and can be used over multiple years. Plus, sharing is caring: find a friend and divide the packets between you.
Again, make a plan
This year, I’d also like no one buying anything from a garden center without a plan in place. By all means go and gather inspiration to your heart’s desire. But do not turn up intending to spend money without a shopping list in hand. I know I’m sounding repetitive here, but great gardens are based on plans, not one-off flights of fancy. That’s just how messes are made.
How do you know what you need? This is the year you are going to assume you will have complete amnesia by the time you actually need to remember something however much you feel it is currently etched in your memory. Take notes, keep records, draw a sketch, keep a diary, take a million boring photos that no one but you will ever need to see, or if they do understand, that show the perfect spot to plant fritallaria bulbs in six months. And if all else fails, bury an empty pot in the ground where you want to plant something at a later date and avoid disturbing any neighbors. (A very handy trick when you are planting fall bulbs where you want to add perennials that won’t be available to source until the following year.)
Work smarter, not harder
How else to cement your plans? Learn from others. Visit gardens. The Garden Conservancy Open Days are a joy to all. At $5 for members and $10 for non), they are a really affordable way to guzzle up inspiration from fellow gardeners across the country (gardenconservancy.org). Other major local gardens Innisfree, Wethersfield, and all those on the Trade Secret Garden tours on May 18 are just waiting to be added to your calendars.
Listen to others: the Bad Grass speaker series is back at the White Hart in Salisbury, CT, this winter with a roster of local garden experts willing to share their knowledge (visit silvaetpratum.com for tickets). Likewise, aside from having the most wonderful garden, Hollister House in Washington Depot, CT, hosts a series of barn talks on all topics gardening by a range of speakers all season long (hollisterhousegarden.org).
But be practical
Now let’s think about the practical gardening tasks coming up this year. Know your windows of opportunity. Take a bit of time now to write a schedule of all those things you saw on other people’s Instagram accounts and thought you want to do but damn it, you’ve missed the window!
Want to divide your irises this year so they bloom better next (something I swear is so easy to do)? Google right now when the best time of year to do this is and put it on your calendar. When to feed your peonies? Prune your hydrangeas? Chelsea chop your perennials? Know which perennials to Chelsea chop? Know what the hell is this Chelsea chop she’s talking about? And should I be doing it? Look it all up now while you have a bit of time, put it on your calendar now and we’ll have no more missing the boat in 2024!
And talking of recognizing real windows of opportunity, make a note to order your fall-planted and winter-forcing bulbs in June. I know, I know! Some of them have barely even finished flowering, maybe even started blooming by then. But this is exactly the time to place your order. Everything is fresh in your mind, you can literally see what you’re missing, and when you go online to place your order, you will not find the dreaded Sold Out message. Only one tiny caveat to temper your enthusiasm while doing this, the time will come when you actually have to plant the bulbs. Many a year has there been slight buyer’s remorse/a complete freak-out in my barn come mid-October as the UPS guy pulls up with his mountain of boxes and the reality of what I have committed to becomes apparent.
Dahlias for everyone? Maybe not.
Many of us have been bitten by the dahlia bug in recent years. Full disclosure I’m a full-blown addict, having gone from planting five to five hundred tubers in as many years. While this explosion in interest has made dahlia knowledge and breeding so much more prolific, it has turned actually buying tubers into the living hell that is The Hunger Games come to life. Let’s just say it can be easier to get your four-year-old into a tony Manhattan pre-school than get your hands on a Hollyhill wicked witch dahlia tuber – regardless of how much you are willing to pay for it. Which is why the person I would most like to nominate for the Noble Peace Prize is the brains behind the aptly nameddahliaaddict.com website.
To say I worship at the altar of this woman is no understatement. If you want to make a dahlia plan – and don’t you dare say you don’t having read this far – this is the mothership to which you must head. A database of every dahlia tuber known to man – and almost every dahlia grower in the country who grows it, with the dates of their sales.
So, while you’re waiting for the snow to melt, now is also the time to get out your laptop and start trawling through the supplier lists and signing up for their newsletters. I know you might not have the time/interest to read their year-round missives – neither do I, that’s what the email delete button is for – but early access to their tuber sales? Gold dust right there!
So there you have it. Just a few ideas of how we can usefully put this time of enforced gardening hibernation to good use. I promise some careful planning now will make the world of difference to your garden this year. •
Pom Shillingford is an obsessive gardener originally from England and now based in Salisbury, CT. She offers seasonal cut flowers through English Garden Grown. Find her on Instagram @english_garden_grown.