Make your 2020 garden the best yet with Elly West’s month-by-month task planner
While it’s generally a quiet and contemplative month in the garden, January signals the start of another year and for that reason it also holds excitement and promise. No two years are the same, and you can never really predict what’s going to happen and which plants will be the star performers. But there is a certain routine with the jobs that need doing outside.
We start the first part of the year with preparation – planning ahead, then sowing seeds and planting – and as we move into summer it’s all about tending and maintaining, before the year draws round to a close and it’s time to cut back and clear, ready to start again. So this issue I’ve put together a month-by-month planner of key tasks to form your action plan, and help make this year’s garden your best yet.
It’s cold outside, but if the ground isn’t frozen it’s a good time to move or plant new shrubs while they are dormant. Keep the borders tidy, clearing away fallen leaves and dead stems, to prevent overwintering pests and diseases. You can also see where the gaps are and better enjoy the sight of new bulbs when they start poking through. Winter-prune wisteria by shortening shoots to two or three buds from the main stem. And when you’re keeping warm indoors, browse seed catalogues for new things to grow this year.
Prune large shrubs that have got out of control, reducing the size and taking out about a third of the old wood. Shrubs such as willow and cornus that are grown for their colourful stems can be coppiced now; cut them right back almost to the knobbly base, from which new stems will shoot up in spring. February is a good month to undertake any major landscaping work, as there is plenty of time to get it finished and get new plants in place before the summer.
Sow seeds of hardy annuals and summer bedding on window sills or in a greenhouse or coldframe if you have one. Prune bush roses by cutting them back hard to knee height, and climbing roses by removing any diseased or spindly stems and shortening all the shoots back to around four buds. Tie stems in as horizontally as possible as this encourages ‘bud break’ and more flowers. Hydrangeas and summer-flowering clematis can also be cut back now; take off the old growth from last year and cut just above the emerging new buds. Many perennials start to show new shoots at the base, including ornamental grasses, so cut back any remaining old leaves to make room for the new.
The garden is really getting going, so planting and weeding are priorities right now. Bulbs are in full swing but as they start to die back, remove the flowers and leave the foliage to die back naturally as this provides energy to the bulb for next year. Mow lawns weekly and consider giving them a spring feed. If you’ve missed the window for sowing seeds, buying small plug plants can be an inexpensive way to fill containers and gaps in borders.
This is one of my favourite months, as everything is fresh and green, and bursting into flower. Harden off seedlings grown under cover by standing them outside during the day and bringing them back in at night, ready for planting out later this month. Trim evergreen hedges such as privet, box and yew, along with topiary. Plant out sweet peas and tie them into supports as they grow. Keep mowing lawns, twice a week if necessary, and watering new plants if the weather is dry.
Harvest herbs such as oregano, chives and rosemary to keep them coming, and sow annuals like basil and parsley directly in the soil at regular intervals for cropping later in the year. Thin out apples and pears so they aren’t too congested, for a better harvest in autumn. Rake gravel paths regularly to stop weeds taking hold. Keep weeding and mowing!
It’s a colourful month, so get busy with your secateurs and deadhead flowers to keep more coming through the summer. Feed containers with high-potash liquid feed. Cut back all the long twining stems of wisteria that have grown this season. Raise the height of your mower to leave the grass slightly longer if the weather is dry, and remember to keep bird baths and ponds topped up.
Cut lavender back once it’s finished flowering, taking off all the flowered stems and cutting a few centimetres into the current year’s growth. Keep plants well watered, and if you are away on holiday, move pots into the shade so they won’t dry out as quickly. Prune espalier fruit trees, cutting back all the new growth to the main framework. Give hedges their final cut of the year. And of course, if you’ve been growing vegetable crops then the harvests are coming thick and fast, so enjoy!
Deadhead dahlias, heleniums, rudbeckia and other late-summer bloomers to keep the display going well into autumn. Cut back summer perennials as they finish flowering, but leave seed heads for winter interest and birds. Order spring bulbs and plant in pots if you’re not sure yet where you want them, ready to drop into the ground next year. Now is the time to turf or sow a new lawn, or reseed bare patches.
Continue planting bulbs and sow sweet pea seeds for earlier flowers next year. Soak the seeds in water overnight or rub them lightly with sandpaper to increase germination rates, then sow in deep pots and leave in a greenhouse or coldframe over winter, making sure the compost doesn’t dry out. Harvest apples and wrap them individually in newspaper to store. If you’re planning a garden redesign, then start making enquiries now before designers and landscapers get booked up for the spring rush.
Clear leaves from borders and lawns and use them to make leaf mould, either in wire bins or old compost bags with holes spiked in them. Scrub algae from paving. Provide water for birds to drink and bathe in, and set up bird feeders to help our feathered friends through the colder months. Tender plants such as tree ferns should be wrapped up now to protect them from hard frosts.
Short days and dreary weather make this a quiet month in the garden. However, any time between now and March is great to plant new trees or hedging plants, as you can buy them bare-rooted at a fraction of the cost of their potted counterparts, and they can be planted through the winter as long as the ground isn’t frozen or waterlogged. Pick foliage and berries to bring in for Christmas displays.
Plant of the month: Sweet box Sweet box, Sarcococca confusa, finds its way into many of my planting schemes as it’s such a versatile, easy-going evergreen that provides structure in winter and grows well in most conditions. It doesn’t mind that trickiest of positions – dry shade – and has the added bonus of gorgeously sweet-smelling flowers in winter, plus attractive black berries, like shiny jewels clustered along the stems. It’s slow growing and makes a good alternative to regular box, Buxus sempervirens, as it’s not susceptible to blight, although it does have a slightly looser habit.