Gardening: Baby, it's cold outside

By Meg Liptrot

The mercury may be falling, but Meg Liptrot says there's work to do.

Weed around bulb shoots to reduce competition for nutrients and light.
Weed around bulb shoots to reduce competition for nutrients and light.

I have to admit, I don't feel like gardening when it's this chilly. I'd rather be hibernating, poring over seed catalogues and planning. The garden is damp and quiet and feels like it should be left alone. But if you feel like adding some colour to your cheeks, there's still plenty of good gardening to be done.

Backyard Cinderella

This essential winter task may seem a little boring, but it will get your blood pumping - get scrubbing. A slippery green slime settles on smooth surfaces in the cool season. Steps, pavers and decks can become a hazard. I've learned my lesson, almost doing the splits once, slipping on macrocarpa timber path edging. Scrub with a stiff bristle broom and a bucket of very hot water and eco dishwash detergent and it will come away in no time. Spray off, then pour some boiling water over for good measure to kill the slime. Give the outdoor furniture a once over, too.

Stockpile compost

Collect wood ash from woodburners (never use coal ash) and keep dry and covered in a bucket for sprinkling around roses and fruit trees. Add handfuls to compost as you build your heap. This will supply potash to encourage fruiting and flowers. Woodash will increase alkalinity in your soil, so don't sprinkle too much around acid-loving plants such as azaleas and blueberries. It is also not recommended for use around potatoes. Continue collecting fallen leaves and store in bags, to be added to your compost between layers of green material.

Worthwhile weeding

Pull the weeds from around emerging bulbs in the garden and in pots. That way, you can enjoy watching the shoots appear, with all the promise they bring. Removing weeds will reduce competition for nutrients and light. The damp soil makes for easy weeding, so tackle weeding jobs you haven't bothered to do over summer. Lay down plain brown cardboard in perennial beds you've weeded - overlap edges to avoid the sun getting through and apply mulch on top to make your weeding efforts last that much longer.

Spot the pests

Look for over-wintering pests and their eggs. Prune stalky dead material from perennials. They will often have tell-tale passionvine hopper egg rows on them. Spray susceptible woody plants with an organic winter clean-up spray such as Aquaticus Glow which has natural oils to help control tiny pests such as thrips, mites, scale, aphids and fungal problems such as powdery mildew. Go on night patrol - slugs and snails are active in damp winter conditions.

Form follows function

On a dry day, you can start pruning deciduous plants that have lost their leaves. Don't prune spring-flowering shrubs. If you live in a very cold region, pruning some plants, such as hydrangeas, is best left until late winter so early growth isn't damaged by frost. Roses can be pruned from now through to late winter. A general rule for pruning is to prune any dead, twiggy, broken or rubbing branches, and allow light to penetrate into your plant by opening up the centre. With climbers and ramblers, remove old woody canes and tie down a new strong stem to an almost horizontal position to take its place. Remove suckers, cut back shoots growing off horizontal canes to 3-5 strong buds, favour strong shoots, remove spindly ones.

Pruning for productivity

Winter is often the time to prune fruit trees for shape, as the structure of the tree can be easily seen. This is a good time to look at the overall shape of the tree, to remove overlapping lateral branches, to prune leaders back to outward facing buds and encourage an open habit. Remember, fruiting buds are formed on angled to near horizontal lateral branches rather than on vertical growth. Grapevines should be pruned and trained now. Ensure you prune on a very dry day, and remember to keep secateurs and loppers sharp. Sterilise your blades by wiping with meths to prevent the spread of disease such as canker. Stonefruit trees are best pruned in late summer to avoid the spread of silverleaf disease in winter.

Keep espaliers in line

Gently tie down your chosen horizontal branches with soft ties, allowing one central leader to grow up. This will be pruned once it is thick and sturdy enough to produce healthy side laterals for the next tier of horizontal branches. Prune old fruiting spurs on apples, leaving plenty there for next summer. Shorten lanky shoots by up to two-thirds to keep the form of your espalier looking good, and leave plenty of fruiting buds. If you're not sure which are the fruiting buds on a stem, leave some unpruned (they can be tricky to spot sometimes - our espaliered pear is a case in point). Tie these branches to a horizontal position or wind gently around the horizontal branch or wire. This will also encourage more fruit to form. Remove any spindly, broken or dead branches.

- Herald on Sunday

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