Prep, prune, plant: Your garden’s success depends on what you do now

A little judicious groundwork at this time of year ensures a gorgeous garden later on

Timing is everything, as that famous saying goes, from those sliding-door moments that can forever change the course of our lives to much more mundane matters such as getting the kitchen garden or allotment ready for another growing year.

Late January, for example, is definitely not a good time to direct-sow seed of most kinds of vegetables outdoors into the open ground (too cold, too dark, too wet), or to deep-dig beds (again, too cold, too dark, too wet) or to install a new polytunnel (you guessed it).

But the good news is that it is a great time to lay the foundations for a productive growing year with a little judicious prep work, careful pruning and planting.

Let’s start with the important task of prepping beds, a job that can quickly turn into a mucky tale of woe at this time of year. For that reason, unless the soil in your garden or allotment is a free-draining one, resist the urge to dig or rotavate it in the coming weeks. A much better alternative is to choose a dry day to chop back or strim down any weeds or coarse vegetation, using a few sturdy wooden boards beneath your feet to spread your weight and protect the soil structure.


Leave any chopped-back leafy growth on the surface, then top it with a shallow blanket of well-rotted manure or foraged seaweed before covering the lot with a sheet of strong black plastic stretched taut over the surface. Secure the latter in place by using the tip of a garden spade to gently press the edges roughly 10cm deep into the soil, placing a few heavy stones or bricks on top as extra insurance against stormy winds that might possibly work it loose.

Bear in mind that patience is the magic ingredient here. You’ll need to leave this covering in position for several months, by which time it will have had a miraculous effect upon the soil, killing off weed growth and preventing the germination of new weeds. Not only that, it will also protect the ground against erosion caused by heavy winter rains and boost the soil temperature as well as rapidly speeding up the process by which that mulch of organic matter becomes integrated into the soil.

Pruning is another one of those late-winter jobs that will (literally) bear fruit in the months to come. Gooseberries, currant bushes, autumn-fruiting raspberry canes, freestanding apple and pear trees (trees that have been grown as bush and standard specimens), medlars and quince are all suitable candidates for the job. But don’t prune stone fruit at this time of year (examples include cherries, plums, apricots etc).

Source of disease

Pick a dry day to prune, arming yourself with a sharp secateurs and a long-armed loppers or small pruning saw and making sure to bag and bin any decayed fruit left on the branches that might act as a potential source of disease. A kneeling pad, if you have one, will also make the job a lot easier.

Recommended pruning techniques vary according to the species, as well as the age of the tree/bush. For clear, concise, step-by-step instructions, get your hands on a copy of Dr Hessayon's impressively straightforward guide, The Fruit Expert (, a classic that has stood the test of time. For online pruning instructions, see

As to the question of what can be planted in the kitchen garden or allotment at this time of year, again it’s important to take your site’s specific growing conditions into account. In milder gardens where the soil is free-draining, not frozen and not prone to winter waterlogging, a variety of container-grown and bare root fruit trees, fruit bushes and cane fruit – apples, pears, plums, medlars, quince, gooseberries, raspberries, currants – can be planted, but in colder, wetter gardens prone to winter-waterlogged soils, it’s best to hold off for a few more weeks until conditions improve. Just don’t leave it too late, bearing in mind that the bare-root season typically runs from November until late March.

If you can give it a weed-free, fertile, free-draining soil in full sun, then you can also plant garlic. Cork-based Fruithill Farm stocks a range of organically certified garlic varieties suitable for planting at this time of year, including Flavor and Cledor (

Although the spring seed-sowing season doesn't begin in earnest for another month, now is also definitely the time to place your seed orders while stocks are high and the inevitable backlog of orders caused by the two-headed monster that is Brexit and the pandemic has yet to peak. The same goes for other gardening essentials such as seed potatoes (start chitting these as soon as you get them), onion sets, seed-trays, compost, labels, vermiculite, heated soil cables, electric propagators, organic fertiliser and horticultural fleece (see last week's column for a list of recommended suppliers).

Sow early

There are also, believe it or not, a handful of vegetables that benefit from being sown early in the year, although most will need a source of heat to germinate, and all will need some degree of protection from the elements until light levels and temperatures rise. Examples include chilli peppers, peppers and aubergines, all of which need really good heat (20 degrees plus, ideally using an electric propagator) followed by steady warmth and high levels of natural light.

Come mid-February you can also sow seed of tomatoes (see Cork-based Some other types of vegetables can be sown and raised indoors on a bright windowsill until they're ready to be planted into their permanent positions outdoors. Examples include broad beans, peas, leeks and onions.

Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have access to a polytunnel or glasshouse, then this also opens up a world of possibilities in terms of what food crops can be sown and grown at this time of year, from a super-early crop of new potatoes to early crops of carrots, hardy lettuce, beetroot, oriental salad leaves, kale and Swiss chard.

Last but not least, late January offers kitchen gardeners the time and opportunity to dream and plan, to ponder past successes and failures, and to consider new ways to garden. Seek out inspiration from the array of excellent online courses offered by kitchen garden experts such as Sligo-based Klaus Laitenberger (whose supremely practical books on the subject are a must-have for Irish kitchen gardeners, see; as well as Instagram (some of my favourite accounts to follow include @dermot.carey; @dunmorecountryschool; @mark_diacono: @airfieldgardens; and @charles_dowding; and by listening to some of the great podcasts out there (suggestions include Grow, Eat, Cook & Arrange with Sarah Raven and Arthur Parkinson; The Dirt (by the UK-based Grow Your Own magazine); and the Organic Gardening Podcast. All will help you to look at your kitchen plot with a very fresh pair of eyes.


This is a good time of the year to get garden machinery such as lawnmowers and strimmers serviced, as well as to clean, repair and sharpen all manner of garden tools and to clean down and repair garden furniture and fencing.

January is also a great time to start tackling badly overgrown deciduous shrubs by selectively pruning two or three of the oldest, thickest branches right back to the base. This process should then be repeated at the same time the following year as a way of gradually encouraging the production of new, healthy growth and slowly reducing overly large plants to a more suitable size without butchering them or affecting their flowering/fruiting display.


February 2nd (from 7.30-9pm), a Zoom talk by Rory Newell, gardener and chief propagator at Blarney Castle in Co Cork, on behalf of the RHSI, see

February 26th, the 2022 GLDA Seminar 'Plan Trees, Plant Trees, Planet Trees; Creative Design with Trees in our Landscape, Streetscape and Gardens' takes place online as a livestreamed event with a range of guest speakers including: Ireland's foremost tree expert and founder of the Irish Tree Society, the author Thomas Pakenham; British garden designer Charlotte Harris; Henrik Sjöman, a Swedish researcher, botanist and plant hunter and the scientific curator at the Gothenburg Botanic Garden, Sweden; Thijs Dolders, landscape architect and plant adviser at Ebben Tree Nursery in the Netherlands; and Gerald Mills, associate professor, School of Geography at UCD, tickets from €45-€70 can be booked online at