Diarmuid Gavin: Plants to enjoy – and garden jobs to do - in the mild weather
Mild temperatures encourage early garden blooms
We spent the Christmas season traveling in Morocco enjoying winter sunshine while wandering through some delightful Islamic courtyard gardens. To cut down on luggage we decided to leave our coats behind us. It was a surprise to step off the plane in Dublin wearing just T-shirts, dreading the late December weather… only to find that the temperature was so mild - similar to the souks of Fez!
And so, the first few days of the new year saw me pulling on my wellies and venturing into the garden for the beginning of my 2019 gardening year. As I started pottering about, my excitement levels rose as I remembered last year's successes and my plans for this coming year started to form.
I began with the most obvious jobs; clearing the decaying leaves from the beds and picking up the small branches which had tumbled from the grove of birch trees at the front of the house. As I did this, I began to notice the green shoots of early bulbs starting to push through. This is always a thrilling moment as you witness the beginnings of a new growth cycle that will take us through to next autumn.
It's not just the bulbs that are growing at the moment, however, there were plenty of weeds emerging as well, encouraged by the milder temperatures. Every year a different weed species dominates my garden and it looks like petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus) is taking that title already. It's easy enough to pull out but it's best to wear gloves as, like other members of the Euphorbia family, the stems contain a burning milky sap.
There are lots of unwanted grass seedlings in the borders as well, and as much as I'd like to decimate them quickly with a hoe, I don't want to damage emerging tips of bulbs so this has to be done by hand. It's a job I'll have to return to over the coming weeks. Of course temperatures could and probably will plummet during January and February, so if you haven't wrapped up tender specimens, now would be the time to do so. My tree ferns are several feet in height, which gives them some protection as the growing point is well off the ground, but I will put some straw or fleece in the crown to make sure the new fronds will not be killed off by sustained low temperatures or snow.
My Mimosa tree (Acacia dealbata, pictured above) is covered with masses of yellow buds which I look forward to seeing open over the next month. I've seen pictures of some of these in milder parts of the island already in full bloom. The very good summer of 2018 will have boosted flower bud development in shrubs and trees, so fingers crossed they make it through to flowering and don't get decimated by heavy frosts.
I took the opportunity while it was dry to start digging over the vegetable patch in preparation for spring planting. It wasn't long before I was joined by our resident robin, hopping about in the hope of a few worms coming his way. Next job will be to visit the local stables which supplies well-rotted horse manure and start spreading it in the potato patch and through the mixed borders.
I was delighted to see the hellebores (below) waking up and starting to flower. A little maintenance is required now, involving cutting away last year's decaying leaves while taking care not to snip away any new shoots of buds. If you don't have any, this is a good time to purchase them and they will keep going until April or even May - it's hard to think of another plant that gives such good flowering value. With such mild weather it's easy to forget that we can experience cold weather, including frost and snows, right through to May, so the warm air and mild temperatures of the moment shouldn't fool us into thinking that the worst of the winter weather is over.
So, while the weather permits, get yourself outdoors and enjoy nature's rejuvenating powers!
If you are out and about, there are some choice plants to admire at the moment: the witch hazels are producing their spidery flower and the waxy lemony blooms of Chimonanthus praecox emit a beautiful scent at this time of year.