Preparing your garden for summer

Pruning and training in January will yield better results later, says Dr Jonathan Holliday

Once more I am thinking about colour at this difficult time of year. The Hellebores come to mind as a rewarding group of easy-to-care-for plants. Atrorubens has dark green deciduous leaves giving it presence and good looks all the year round but its deep plum-purple cup-shaped flowers, which open from January to March, are especially good. Helleborus Niger, the Christmas Rose, has a similar habit but the flowers are flatter and white.

What a fabulous year 2006 was for Mahonia. I find it endlessly surprising how each year seems to favour one plant so well.

So, at the moment I am an expert on Mahonia because my plant has been the best I have ever seen. Mahonia originates in China. They can grow to 8ft or so depending on the variety. They have leaves like holly and fragrant deep yellow flowers borne on racemes up to 12 inches long.

Their flowering season is between November and February and they certainly add colour and drama at an otherwise difficult time of year. Plant in October/November or April/May in sun or partial shade. They are not choosy about soil conditions and once settled in, they are resilient to the neglect of the busy doctor.

Just because it is January and it is cold does not mean there are no jobs to be done. Now is a good time for pruning for instance.

Gooseberries are one of those soft fruits which I think taste best coming plump and fresh from the bush. But, you are thinking, we are a long way from gooseberry season.

Well, the secret to success is to create enough space and movement of air that you reduce the risk of mould forming. Cut out all crossing, broken or diseased shoots but be sure to leave a good selection of new shoots because these will become the branches on which the fruit will be carried next year. It is best to prune between November and February.

Blackcurrant is another soft fruit that carries its fruit on old wood. Prune too heavily and you will prune away your chances of a successful crop. Leave healthy branches that have grown from shoots in 2006 to carry the fruit this year.

We need to prune away, however, all broken, mildewed branches and those that are too close to the ground. We need it to produce new shoots from the base of the plant for the following year's fruit but you may need to thin out weak and overcrowded shoots.

Climbing roses will repay attention at this time with better flowering next year. Ensuring good flowering from these plants is as much about training as it is about pruning. Flowering tends to happen at that part of the branch closest to light and the sky. So vertically trained branches will try frantically to flower at the top but there will be little flowering lower down. On the other hand, branches that are tied in horizontally will flower along their length. Each year prune the unproductive old branches back to their bases while tying in new shoots in their place.

Whole books are written on training and pruning but I would recommend the very practical RHS Pruning and Training by Christopher Brickell and David Joyce. It is very clear and easy to follow and the line drawings make it easy to understand, which is just the sort of guide I need.

Dr Holliday is a GP in Windsor

Further Information

RHS Pruning and training by Christopher Bricknell and David Joyce, Dorling Kindersley, May 2006, £16.99, ISBN 1405315261

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