Wow! We all know it’s bleak midwinter now, don’t we? Even in my sheltered southern garden, ‘snow has fallen, snow on snow’ and the earth is definitely ‘as hard as iron’.
At least, I won’t have to do any digging for a while! There are still some gardening jobs to give you a break from making mince pies though, like looking after your tools, caring for citrus plants, and sowing onion seeds…
Tool-care – the way to saintliness
I never want to do much at all with my garden plants while they are coping with deep frost. Are you the same? The tatty leaves and top growth of perennials are protecting their root crowns a bit from the penetrating cold. And the branches, seedheads and fruits of bushes and trees are providing food and cover for birds and other wildlife. I leave my secateurs in the shed (very, very unusual for me!), and instead wander around in the chilly stillness with my camera, trying to take arty shots of frost-rimed leaves and icy roses, before everything turns to slush.
This is absolutely the BEST time to tend to those secateurs, loppers and other garden tools though. I expect there are saints among our readers who clean their tools at the end of each gardening day. I’m afraid I don’t. I expect them to work flawlessly for months on end with barely a wipe-down from one month to the next. What a lazy so-and-so!
BUT every December or January, I finally get around to the job, knowing that spending time on cleaning and sharpening them will make a stupendous difference to their efficiency when I really need them. If you feel like joining me, here’s what to do:
1. Clean your trowels, forks, spades, hoes, secateurs, pruning blades etc. with water, a nylon scouring pad and washing-up liquid which will get rid of dirt and dried sap.
2. Disinfect the blades of all your cutting tools like secateurs, using Jeyes Fluid, methylated spirit (that’s what I use), or a mild disinfectant, and leave that on for 20 minutes before wiping it off with an old towel. (By the way, if you are dealing with fireblight, box blight or other viruses and cankers in your garden, you must do this blade disinfection much more frequently, and always after you have been pruning the affected plants, to avoid spreading the spores everywhere .)
3. Blunt blades can cause snags and splits in the stems you’re cutting, which look ugly and can allow diseases to enter, so sharpen them with a fine file or a rough whet-stone. Remove rust with wire wool. Don’t forget to sharpen the blades of hoes, so that they will slice through weeds at soil level instead of just bashing them about a bit.
4. Finish the job by applying oil with a rag to all the exposed metal bits to ward off the dreaded rust and help them work smoothly.
There’s another bonus to this job. When all your gardening tools look clean and sparkling and are stored back in their correct places ready for the spring offensive, you will feel such a glow of smug satisfaction with your achievement, it will keep you warm till March!
Youngest Growbag Caroline rescued a very miserable-looking lemon tree from the reject pile at her local garden center the other day. Whether she has the capabilities to bring it back to life is a very moot point, frankly – I bet that little lemon tree is already wishing that it had been purchased by middle Growbag Laura, who is a bit of a whizz on this subject.
With that in mind, I am going to hand over to her, for a few pearls of wisdom on what to do with your citrus plants in winter…..
Laura here and yes, if she didn’t live so far away I would be swooping in to rescue Caroline’s little lemon tree. The leaves may have withered but the stems are still green giving more than a ray of hope. In my experience citrus are much more resilient than they look and flower and fruit much more prolifically if given a regimen of tough love.
Over winter they can take a degree or two of frost, but not much more, so you really need to be bringing them into some sort of bright shelter. A house would be too warm, a garden shed too dark, so we’re talking about a just frost-free greenhouse, or bright unheated porch. Cut back on watering, just giving them a drench when their leaves start to droop a bit, and switch to a citrus winter feed. We feed ours once a month.
Don’t be alarmed if you get some leaf-drop if conditions are either a bit on the cold side, or a bit on the warm side. As I said earlier, they are more resilient than you think, and will often happily re-sprout in spring.
Wise winter watering
During the cold winter months, plants really don’t use much water. It is extremely easy to look at a plant inside or in the greenhouse and think that it is languishing because it’s thirsty, when actually it’s just ‘resting’ in a semi-dormancy during low temperature and poor light levels. If the compost they are in becomes waterlogged, it also becomes airless and may well affect the health of the plants, causing roots to die off.
So just be very circumspect about your watering. For houseplants, watering a tray of pebbles below the pot can work well, and lessens the chance of over-watering.
Assess each plant individually. You don’t want them to be bone-dry – aim for ‘just moist’. And make sure the pots are on slatted or wire-topped benching if you can, so that the pots can drain freely.
- Sow onion seeds under cover now for a harvest next July. You get much more of a choice of varieties than when you plant sets, and seeds are thousands cheaper. Sow 3-4 seeds per module of good seed compost, cover them with a thin layer of vermiculite, water and leave them in 10-16 degrees Celsius to germinate. You will need to harden them off, slowly getting them used to outdoor conditions before planting them in the garden in late spring.
- Try to avoid walking on a frosted lawn which can break the grass-blades – not disastrous but it can take quite a while to recover.
- If you’re bringing in foliage to decorate the house for Christmas, remember to split the stems and branches and give them a good overnight drink in a bucket of water first. Cut them again before you arrange them and they’ll be better able to withstand the warmth of the house. They wouldn’t say no to an occasional mist of water either.
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