Gardening Journal: Plant of the Month: Mahonia

January is probably my least favourite gardening month. It's normally dark dreary, wet and cold. However, there is the odd time when the sun shows its face and brings some much needed light to recharge those batteries. These crisp frosty mornings provide a different perspective in the garden and should be appreciated as part of an ever changing tapestry of different texture and light as we progress through the changing seasons.

Mahonia tend to get a bad press because they are often used in mass plantings in commercial landscaping schemes. They are generally butchered to the usual square cut provided by the hedge trimming teams. This sort of treatment doesn’t help to show Mahonia at its best and is a little too formal for the Mahonia which looks much better grown in a more informal, naturalistic setting. While most gardeners often overlook planting Mahonia, there are many reasons why they should be considered. They are easy to grow, versatile, give late winter colour, and also have scented flowers and berries for the wildlife too. They are mostly trouble free, require little maintenance and are fast growing, which means you don’t have to wait long for them to mature. They are evergreen, don’t mind a bit of dry soil and can even cope with shady conditions too.

 They do prefer a bit of sun but not too much. The only downside would be the incredibly spiky leaves – not pleasant for the gardener when clearing up the leaf fall!

Mahonias are named after an Irishman, Bernard McMahon, who emigrated to Philadelphia in the 18th century. The American mahonias, such as M. aquifolium, are generally shorter than the taller Asiatic ones (such as Mahonia japonica or M. lomariifolia). American mahonias do better in sunny sites with well-drained soil whereas the Asian ones like some shade and will cope happily with heavy soil too.

When growing Mahonia you do not necessarily have to prune the shrub. However, when they do get a bit lanky they can be easily dealt with by a swift cut back to just above ground level. This should be done after flowering and will result in new stems shooting from the cut stem in spring. Mahonia look great planted with snow drops and Hellebores to provide a mixed winter display. In my opinion they look best in a woodland setting, where they provide a evergreen understory to deciduous trees, the dark green leaves look great with the white of birch stems.

The most important thing to do is give them some space, don’t be tempted to plant them too close to other evergreen shrubs where both shrubs can become congested, fighting for space.

Jobs to be done in January:
Ornamental Garden

• f the ground is waterlogged then keep off the soil to avoid compaction and worsening the conditions.
 • If snow falls – Do not let the snow sit on the shrubs, gently shake off to prevent damage.
• Prune bush or standard apples and pears, aiming to create an open framework of about 5 main branches.
• Sweet Peas can be sown this month and those sown in the autumn can be potted on. Place them in a sunny greenhouse, coldframe or windowsill.
• Plan annual cut flowers for the borders.
• Mulch borders if not already done in autumn.
• Plant deciduous hedges.
• Move deciduous trees and shrubs if necessary.
• Ensure protective coverings such as fleece/mulch have remained in place over frost tender plants.
• Avoid walking on turf when the grass is covered with frost or is waterlogged.

Vegetable Garden
• Protect brassicas from pigeons with cloches, netting or fleece.
• Harvest Winter Vegetables such as parsnip, swede, sprouts, leeks and turnip.
Remove one third of the oldest stems of blackcurrants at ground level to encourage new basal shoots.
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