Anna Taylor, owner of Anna’s Flower Farm in Audley End, shares what’s going on in the garden this month
We focus on the trees this month – pruning, planting and celebrating their produce. In mid-winter, the framework of fruit trees is fully visible, and it’s an ideal time to cut back any dead or diseased wood, crossing, tangled branches and weak growth. But be careful: always cut back to something, never right to the trunk and remember that winter pruning will promote woody growth, so trim carefully (you can go harder on fruit trees in late summer for fruit production). Winter pruning of apples should be about keeping the tree open for light and air to reach fruits – ideally enough space between branches so a pigeon can fly!
At Anna’s Flower Farm, we keep the pruned branches in buckets of water in a shed and bring them inside for arrangements to force into blossom. You can stagger this over several weeks. The buds will be smaller than on the trees later in the spring, but are welcome signs of warmer seasons.
To encourage a good harvest, this month cider-producing regions will celebrate fruit crops by the ancient custom of Wassailing. North-west Cambridge was once known for its productive orchards – grown for fruit, canning and jam rather than cider – but never mind, it’s a great festivity to participate in! The Wassail king or queen hangs a cider-soaked piece of toast in the branches of the most prominent or oldest tree in the orchard. Wassail songs are sung, cider poured over the tree roots and good spirits summoned to promote a successful harvest.
“North-west Cambridge was once known for its productive orchards”
You can warm your cider with spices, sugar, oranges and lemons, or you can use apple juice so the whole family can join in. During the ritual, children love to bang pots and make as much noise as possible to ward off evil spirits. It is really good fun on a cold, clear, crisp night under a star-filled sky. We start around our espaliered plum, gage and apple trees and take the tradition right across the farm and flower plots.
Finally, this is a great month to get warmed up in the garden by turning the compost heap. To work properly, a compost heap needs to be hot. Once the initial decomposition has occurred over the first few weeks of building the heap, it will slow down, but you can reactivate and speed up the composting process by turning it over. Ideally, you would have two or three heaps next to each other in various states. Or, in a smaller garden, take all the compost out of the bin and fill it back up by lifting and aerating the material as it goes back in. This will take months off the compost production time and is so satisfying on a cold day. Once it is ready to use, you can spread it as a mulch across your borders or add to loam and vermiculite or grit to create your own compost mix.
Then, back inside, drink warmed, spiced apple juice and contemplate the seed catalogues for inspiration for the years’ growing to come. Happy new year!