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The darkest days are behind us 2 Feb 2024 more than a month past the winter solstice, the garden begins to stir.

I am regularly tasked with setting the questions for the Garden Club Christmas Party, and I remember once asking, “What is the term for a snowdrop enthusiast?” The answer is “galanthophile”, and just about now these perhaps slightly obsessive people will be near the beginning of their annual hands-and-knees pilgrimage, crawling around close to ground level to admire the multifarious small-scale wonders of this very large family of plants.

Everyone is, I think, familiar with the “standard” single snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, and probably with the naturally occurring double G. nivalis “flore pleno”, but these are forms of only one species, and the snowdrop genus contains at least twenty, mainly blooming in late winter and early spring, but with a few that flower in the autumn or as late as May. In addition, snowdrop lovers and specialist plant breeders have found or bred hundreds of varieties, some of which are very rare and hence very expensive. Unusual markings of the inner or outer petals are particularly prized, as are flowers with yellow colouring. Best planted “in the green”, i.e. after flowering but still with actively growing foliage, fifty bulbs of the ordinary single can be bought for a few pounds, and, planted in a drift, will make an increasingly lovely show year upon year. On the other hand, one bulb of Galanthus plicatus "Golden Tears" sold in 2022 for £1,850. Galanthophilia becomes galanthomania.

Alongside snowdrops as harbingers of spring, some early types of daffodil will soon be coming into flower, and I have already seen primroses out in sheltered places. A rather more unusual plant in bloom this month is Azara microphylla, an evergeen tree from new Zealand, which has tiny, vanilla-scented, yellow flowers, and seems to cope very well with anything an Oxfordshire winter can chuck at it. I planted one soon after moving here in 2015, and its now fifteen feet high.

One task that should certainly be performed this month is pruning your clematis, which I know fills some people with dread. It need not. There are basically three sorts:

Type 1 - includes spring-flowering varieties like C. montana and C. alpina, don’t need regular pruning; if they get congested or outgrow their allotted space, renovation pruning is the best: after flowering cut all stems back to about a foot high, feed, mulch and water regularly (the evergeen C. armandii also flowers early, but does not respond well to hard cutting back. Instead thin its growth by removing whole stems to the base, or prune all stems lightly, removing not more than half of their length).

Type 2 – large flowered hybrids, such as “Nelly Moser” or “Jackmanii”, generally blooming in early summer: in late winter or early spring remove any dead or weak stems completely; examine other stems from the top downwards, cutting just above the first pair of healthy buds you encounter; you can also  cut some stems back to a good fat bud after the first flush of flowers is over – this should encourage further flowering later in the season.

Type 3 – smaller-flowered varieties and species that bloom in late summer and into the autumn, such as “Étoile violette”, C.viticella and C. orientalis: these should be pruned to a strong pair of buds less than a foot (30cm) above the ground. This method also works well with non-climbing herbaceous forms.

Should you be faced with an unidentified, unpruned clematis with a mass of dead leaves several feet in the air, fear not: cut it back to about three or four feet (100-120cm) above the soil, preferably just above a dormant bud. It will very probably start shooting in the spring, though it may not flower much during the first year of its recovery.

Remember clematis are greedy plants that need a lot of water and regular feeding during the growing season. Originally woodland plants, they are happiest with their head in the sun but their feet in the shade, so keep their roots cool with a few stones or bricks placed over them.

As long as the ground isn’t frozen (and as I write there seems little immediate threat of that) February is a good time to plant bare-root roses, which are cheaper than the pot-grown ones, and also to tackle one of those garden jobs I dread, namely pruning wisteria. One of the few plants growing well in my present garden when I arrived was a wisteria, the pruning of which I have still not mastered, though the RHS web-site has excellent advice: https://www.rhs.org.uk/plants/wisteria/pruning-guide

Beyond the flower garden, now is also the time to chit potato tubers, prepare your beds for vegetable seed, finish pruning fruit trees and protect the more tender ones like peaches and apricots against frosts. Prune evergreen hedging, cut back herbaceous grasses. There are more excellent tips on all these and more current tasks here: https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/in-month/february

By January 22nd, we all had lived through the darkest time of the year, the calendar month on either side of the winter solstice. Soon spring will be on us with its annual, seemingly miraculous rush.

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