Of all the months of the year, January is the one which will be very different in your garden, depending on where you live. In colder zones you can pretty much guarantee it will be a month of deep sleep, buried beneath a blanket of snow. At the other extreme, in Florida or southern California, it can be mild and warmer, with the first hints of spring already arriving, at least on a few plants. In between it will be, well, in between, with the possibility of a few precious blooms on a rare plant or too, if a mild spell arrives.
A Time for Planning
Wherever you live, though, top of the list for this month is to look ahead to the coming season. It won’t be so long before spring arrives – hesitantly at first, but soon with growing enthusiasm – so are you going to be ready? Are you the kind of person who wants a garden that basically takes care of itself, with just a bit of basic housekeeping from you, or are you keen to get out there and create your own little paradise? That is a basic question to ask, and it will set the pattern for what you do. There is a strange paradox seen in the best gardeners. They care deeply for their plants, but when one doesn’t do what they want, or moves from a joy to a burden, they are ruthless – out it goes! A good place to start thinking is with a list of your disappointments for the year, alongside a list of your joys and successes. You might decide, if they were new arrivals, to give the disappointments another year to prove themselves – that is usually a good strategy – but if you have had them around for a while and they still are up to it, then take them out. If you don’t have a lot of snow, and the ground isn’t frozen, then a mild day in January is the perfect time to get them out and gone.
Once you have cleared out, you can take stock and consider what to do with that new space. Room in the garden is always an opportunity, so don’t waste it. What plants have done well for you? Are there other varieties of them, because there is a good chance that they will do well too, rather than trying out something unknown. Working from a base of your successes is a good strategy. Another option is to think about which seasons your garden is weak in. Spring is easy, but when summer comes, and into fall, it is easy to have a flowerless garden, if you don’t plan your plant purchases. These new spaces could become a summer highlight, or even a winter joy, if you buy the right plants.
A Time for Winter-blooming Plants
Of course, it depends where you live, but in warmer zones there are several plants that will often bloom in the winter months. Here is a list of some of the best:
Camellias – although these gorgeous evergreen bushes are often thought of as spring blooming, if you seek out the right varieties you can have a plant in bloom any month from September to May. The Japanese camellia blooms in spring, and the sasanqua camellia blooms in fall, so it is not so surprising that hybrids between those two species bloom in winter. Top varieties that can easily be in bloom in January, February or March include ‘Two Marthas’, which is a good choice in zone 7, but more likely to bloom in January in zones 8 and 9. ‘Pink Icicle’ is, as its name suggests, hardy even in zone 6, but for winter blooming, again it needs to be in zones 8 or 9. If you have your bushes in pots, though, and a cool porch for them, winter blooms are sure to be seen.
Cherry trees – although the large-blooming cherries are for spring, there are a couple that will bloom very early. The beautiful variety called ‘Okame’ will often open numerous deep pink blooms in January or February. Prunus x subhirtella is known as the Higan cherry, and although the blossoms are small, and a soft pink, they can easily open anytime from fall to spring, and a week of warmer weather will turn it into a pink cloud against the sky. A real winter treat.
Oriental Paper Bush – called Edgeworthia tomentosa or Edgeworthia chrysantha, this Japanese shrub amazes everyone who sees it for the first time. The clusters of yellow flowers on the ends of the bare branches look like lightbulbs, and a tree in bloom in winter is an amazing sight. Not hard to grow, it will thrive in zones 7 to 11, blooming earlier in the winter in the warmest places.
A Time for Watering
Hm, says the sceptic, why on earth go out and water in winter? The answer is simple. Evergreens continue to lose water (transpire) in winter, and often the humidity is very low, so they can lose a lot of moisture from their leaves on a cold, windy and sunny winter’s day. To replace that they need to draw up more from the soil, and that can be difficult if the ground is frozen. If you have had a dry fall and early winter, going out in January and watering your evergreen specimens and hedges is a good plan, and will often save them from winter damage. Mulching in fall helps this problem too, since it reduces the intensity of the ground freezing.
If you have used anti-desiccant sprays on your evergreens, and we recommend them, especially for new plants and ones that are border-line hardy, then if there has been rain it can wash off. So if you get a January day above 35 degrees, wrap up and do some respraying – it will really make a difference.
A Time for Digging
Finally, if the ground isn’t frozen and you have new beds planned, or old ones to renovate, a great winter exercise is digging. Besides the fact that doing it now means you save a lot of time in spring, if you have clay soil it is a way to really improve it. Normally after digging a bed we rake it smooth, but in winter it pays to leave clay soil rough and irregular, exposing lots of surface. The alternative freezing and thawing that often happens in winter will cause the tiny clay particles to clump together, improving drainage and air penetration, which are both vital for good growth in heavier types of soil.