How to look after your garden in winter

Don’t let your garden wither away in the winter (Picture: Getty/

The first lockdown was tough for the millions of city-dwellers living without gardens.

Since then, demand for outside space has skyrocketed among renters and buyers.

In August, 83% of UK surveyors predicted that demand for homes with gardens will increase – and by September, the price of homes with gardens had hit a four-year high.

For a huge number of people, moving house has not been possible this year. A few lucky others have managed to upgrade to a place with outside space – sometimes upping sticks and leaving the city in order to do so.

And then there are those that have rediscovered their unloved back gardens, patios or balconies, discovering that getting their hands dirty in the garden can be vital to health and wellbeing.

All this has led to a lot of first-time gardening. And some of us don’t have a clue what we’re doing, especially in the colder months.

The first thing to realise is that lots of plants are dormant in the winter. This means there’s much less weeding to do, which is a relief for newbie gardeners. But it also means that you have to choose what you plant carefully, and look after anything that’s already growing.

Winter is a great time to plan what kind of garden you want, and start putting that plan in action. Would you like your lawn bordered by bee-friendly flowers? Where’s the vegetable patch going to go? If you have a patio, are you going to go for potted plants or a vertical garden? And how can you turn your balcony into a winter flower wonderland?

Whatever space you have, think about seasonal planning, pathways, and making space for composting and wildlife havens. Draw a sketch of your planned outside space, and how it will look in spring, summer, autumn and winter, before doing a rough calendar of what to do and when – starting now.

Step by step, here’s what you should do.

Step one: Prune for the winter

You can plant apple trees in the winter to harvest later in the year (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Between November and March is the best time to prune any roses or fruit trees that might already grow in the garden.

To prune a rose bush, cut it back by about half, to give the plant a round shape and to remove any dead or damaged stems.

For fruit trees – like apple, plum or pear – you should remove any branches that are dead or rubbing against each other, and declutter branches to allow for an easier fruit harvest come summertime.

These fruit trees, known as bare-root trees, can also be planted in early winter – just avoid planting them when it’s frosty.

When choosing an apple, cherry, fig tree or similar (the RHS has a list of recommendations), go for one with untangled, healthy-looking roots. Soak the roots in water before planting and then place it in a sunny, sheltered position.

Planting it with a stake helps to keep the tree growing straight, or in smaller spaces, train it along a south-facing fence or wall, which will soak up the sun’s heat and help to ripen the fruit. You don’t need a big garden to grow a fruit tree.

Then, it’s best to clear any flower beds of any weeds so that if there are any perennials (and you can plant some too), they’ll be free to grow and create a winter habitat for ladybirds and other insects throughout the colder months.

Step two: Plant some vegetables

Carrots grow well in the winter (Picture: Tom Werner/ Getty Images)

Growing your own vegetables is great for the planet, saves money on shopping and is great for your  mental and physical health.

You might not think you have the space to grow veg, but where there’s a will there’s a way. Even if you only have a patio, balcony or windowsill, you can grow vegetables like lettuce and carrots in pots, or potatoes and mushrooms in bags of soil (you don’t even need sunlight for that).

But think carefully before you go sowing seeds or planting your Sainbury’s-bought basil pot in the garden. The majority of vegetables should be planted in spring, but there are a few that flourish throughout the winter.

These include carrots, spring onions, cabbage and kale. Leeks are probably Britain’s defining January vegetable, perfect for soups and stews.

Short on space? Why not try a vertical garden, which involves hanging planting pots on top of each other on the wall. If you’ve got a south-facing wall it’s even better, for growing Mediterranean veg like tomatoes, courgettes and aubergines come springtime.

Step three: Plant some winter flowers

Snowdrop flowers bloom in winter (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

There are plenty of plants that flower in the colder months, brightening up your outside space with a splash of colour. Choose between wall climbers like clematis, to bushy bedding plants like pansies, which flower all winter, or even winter honeysuckle which is a favourite for winter bumblebees. Snowdrops and Christmas roses tend to flower in January, and winter-flowering heathers are easy to grow, inhibiting weeds and attracting bees as they go.

If you’ve only got space for window boxes, try growing some colourful beds of evergreen daphnes, which might come through red, pink, white or green come February.

Always plan your plants according to the spot they’re getting. Got a sunny bed? Plant some lily bulbs to come through in spring. For shady spaces, hardy plants like butcher’s broom or ferns can do well.

Step four: Look after the local wildlife

Help birds through the winter with a feeder box (Picture: Getty Images)

You’ve got your bee population sorted, but what about your garden’s other inhabitants? No matter how big your outside space is, you can help to provide for local birdlife with bird feeders and boxes.

There are a few things to consider when installing these. Domestic cats are responsible for catching an estimated 27 million birds each spring and summer, and a badly installed birdbox or easily reachable bird feeder can create a sitting target.

To attract birds to your garden safely, use a bird table that cats cannot reach, high from the ground and away from fences or sheds that cats can jump from. Grow spiny plants, like holly, around the base of a bird table to deter cats from going near them (holly also produces berries that sustain birds through the winter).

And if you’re a cat owner, consider putting bells on your cat’s collar to alert potential prey when they’re near. Cats do most of their hunting just before dusk and just after dawn, so keeping your cat inside overnight can really help the local bird population to flourish.

Bear in mind that bird feeding can attract less welcome residents – rats. The best way to prevent rats is to catch fallen seeds in a hanging tray beneath the feeder, so that they’re not left on the ground for a rat to find. You can also install baffles on your bird feeder pole to stop a rat (or squirrel) climbing it, and another great tip is to mix cayenne pepper with the bird seed. Birds have few taste buds and won’t notice, whereas the mixture might be spicy enough to deter a rat from coming back.

Lastly, don’t forget about the tiny critters that share your garden, too. If you want to put your garden waste to good use, you might want to make a bug hotel from some old wooden pallets or terracotta pots (check out the RSPB’s guide on building one from scratch). Keep it well separated from any vegetable patches and wait for crawly creatures like woodlice and ladybirds to flock there to shelter – you might even get a hedgehog.

Step five: Look ahead to spring

Keeping your garden tidy in the winter will help you prepare for spring (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Got a spare corner of the garden? Why not make a compost heap out of some old wooden pallets and some leftover potato peelings, grass cuttings and onion skins? Not only will it provide a constant supply of food for insects, but it’ll create beautiful compost for the spring, when it’ll be time to plant for the warmer months.

Just watch out for those pesky rats again, by avoiding putting down any cooked food, meat or dairy.

Then, keep your beds neat and weed-free, so that come springtime you can get planting. Check for any slugs or pests so that you can deal with them before the spring. And for eco-friendly future gardening, install a water butt to start collecting rainwater. Most of the year’s rain falls in winter, and not only is this the best water to feed plants with, it takes the pressure off water companies that end up tapping groundwater reserves and streams to meet peak demand for water in the hotter months.

Having a garden is a luxury, and keeping it in good nick is essential for local wildlife to flourish. And with more lockdowns likely ahead, gardening will help safeguard your health and wellbeing, too. Order some equipment online and get outside.

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