JANUARY can be the most disagreeable month for gardeners, if they allow it.
We could sit and count the negatives on our fingers, but listing phenomena we can do nothing about (foul weather and short, cold days for example) is never helpful. Positive thoughts and actions are the way forward.
Surround yourself with colourful catalogues. Buy a few packets of sprouting vegetable seeds that you can sow, grow and consume in your house, all within a week.
Visit the garden centre and make a modest purchase; a bunch of flowers, pot of bulbs or plant to be near you indoors, even a hardy perennial subject already in bloom, that can be sited somewhere near a window outdoors.
We are presently enjoying the simple pleasure of watching the green shoots from underground bulbs and corms growing taller by the day.
They were peeping through in November and have now moved on a pace, indeed, the aconites are in bloom alongside the earliest snowdrops and delightful dwarf cyclamen coum.
Buds of dwarf iris reticulata are just days away from bursting into glorious blue flowers and close behind is the yellow form danfordiae.
In truth, there has been no shortage of winter flowers outdoors for the past two months.
Half-a-dozen or so ever-reliable shrubs have taken care of that.
Then there has been the bonus of polyanthus and wallflowers, destined for spring display, giving us a preview of floral treats to come.
This often happens when we have a mild start to winter.
But the icing on the cake for me, as always, is the total reliability of those winter heathers, ‘Springwood White’ and ‘Pink’. Along with ‘King George’ and ‘Darleyensis’, they form a quartet that will stop anyone in their tracks.
Several shrubs in this garden make a cheerful contribution via their flowers or coloured bark.
The long, fragrant racemes of mahonia are outstanding at present and one of my favourite bark combinations is the ghostly silver birch teamed up with red and pale-green dogwoods.
But some look best as stand-alone plants and the red-stemmed willow salix sachalinensis ‘Sekka’ is one.
It has fasciated stems, a fault in some plants, but a selling point in this case. Imagine flat red stems, four centimetres across, set against the clear blue sky as we stare upwards and you have the picture.
This shrub is possibly regarded by some as too ebullient because it can put on three metres of growth in a season, but the simple answer is to tackle it severely after the April catkins fade, with long-handled pruners.
Now that bunches of daffodils have started appearing at the florists’ shops, some of our shrubs, including the willow, can contribute to indoor displays.
Cut a few stems and put them in the vase alongside your daffs and see what a cheerful combination they make.
Renew the daffodils and the water each week but keep the willow. After a month it will have rooted and can be planted in the garden.
Spiraea is another shrub that is easily propagated, almost by default, when it is taken from the winter garden and used to support hyacinth blooms.
The wiry stems are dormant and unobtrusive when added to a bowl of bulbs.
But the pleasant surprise comes when they break into leaf and root. Use spiraea ‘Arguta’ now if you yearn for a bridal wreath in your garden.
Far better this than the canes, knitting needles, green-twist, sugar string or wool I’ve witnessed while judging spring shows over the years!
If you’ve ever longed for a flowering plant seen in someone else’s winter garden, now is the time do something about it and at the same time raise your spirits.
Any decent garden centre will have currently flowering plants on sale, and within an hour you could have one settled into a high-profile spot at home.
The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) springs to mind because we saw some beauties for sale in full bloom last week.
People occasionally ask “Why niger (meaning black) when the flowers are pristine white?” Simple answer, the roots are black.
If we had taken the trouble to cover three existing groups in a front border with cloches, to offer protection and stimulate early growth, we’d have had them in bloom for Santa coming.
But they are left uncovered and will flower at Candlemas which, given the nature of that feast, is perhaps more appropriate.
You can always rely on the gardening centres to stimulate the imagination and get us off to a flying start every year.
We paid the final visit of 2011 on December 30 ostensibly for light refreshments and to browse the plant displays, but were drawn instead towards an area showcasing early potatoes.
Whenever these appear, foremost on this fellow’s mind is the potato which bears that very name. It shines out like a beacon when lifted from the dark earth in mid-June, and although it is said that taste is a subjective thing, ‘Foremost’ is top of the pots for me.
Just for the record, a two kilogramme pack was selling for £3.99, with fellow earlies ‘Pentland Javelin,’ ‘Duke of York’ and ‘Rocket’ standing alongside in smaller parcels for £2.49. No doubt this modest display was just a taster, and before January is over several more cultivars will be available.
It is usual to find a choice of ten or so of the most popular early types on display, and keen vegetable growers will happily tell you exactly which is their favourite and why.
But if you are less interested in taste than the boasting rights that come with being first to harvest the crop, then I may be able to help.
In this garden we have found that one particular cultivar outpaces all others in the sprint to a mid-June finishing line. For me it lacks flavour, but it’s ‘Rocket’ by name and a rocket by nature!
But what advantage is there in buying the early crop potatoes now? The majority of gardeners probably stick with tradition and plant them outside over Easter weekend, or mid-March if the weather is reasonable. Surely there’s plenty of time!
One of the benefits relates to supply and demand. If you have a favourite variety it makes sense to act while it’s available.
It only takes one rumour of a shortage to trigger panic buying. I also like to have my potatoes to hand for chitting, which involves standing them eyes upward on trays in the light to encourage shoots.
If this happens to be in an unheated environment, cover them with fleece when frost is forecast. Potatoes planted with sturdy green shoots always have a head start.
Best of all, once they’re bought there is an irresistible urge to pop three into a large pot and grow them on in the greenhouse or poly-tunnel for an early treat - which of course you can mention in casual gardening conversation later!