The onset of a new year doesn’t fill me with quite so much promise these days. Maybe it never did, and we’ve simply been pummelled into thinking otherwise by corporate insistence that we overcome our bad habits and develop new ones every January. In recent years, in these queasy newborn days of a calendar year, I’ve clung to Virginia Woolf’s resolution that there is indeed no need to sparkle.
The last time we discussed January, I believe, I was struck down with Covid while attempting to go on holiday. That was a good cure for not wanting to leave the house, but in general I’m unashamed to admit I struggle to find the outdoors alluring when there’s little growing and the weather is grim.
There are things to be done, of course – and if we’re given the right kind of bright, crisp day while the baby is asleep or being looked after, I shall think about doing them. The ivy needs cutting back; it’s propped up by the bird feeder, much to the birds’ disappointment. I have some foxglove plugs to bed in, and, as ever, some tools to sharpen and clean. If my heavy clay ground ever manages to dry out I’ll give the lawn a close mowing before the bulbs I’ve planted in it emerge, thus relinquishing me of my least-favourite gardening job until at least July.
Traditionally, I’ve made an effort to create winter interest in the garden, usually with annuals. Throwing a tray of violas or hellebores into dormant pots can be a deeply cheering way to brighten up a garden. I’d neatly top bulb-filled containers with pea gravel until, hands numb with cold, I’d feel greatly satisfied and somewhat like Monty Don. But last year I neither wrapped presents nor planted bulbs until 24 December, so behind was I with everything.
There’s also something deeper going on, which is an unignorable awareness of waste and climate catastrophe. Increasingly, I see my garden as something that looks after itself: I let the leaves rot where they fall; I feel smug about the worm casts in the gaps in the lawn, and worry about how weirdly mild it feels.
Still, I’m a sucker for beauty – and surrounding oneself with unfurling, growing things is a great remedy for January malaise. As dead Christmas trees litter the pavement, the supermarkets stock up with growing, planted-up bulbs. They become my quick dirty fix: cardboard pots of sprouting narcissi, irises and, on occasion, a hyacinth smuggled in the shopping among the boxes of Weetabix and tea bags.
Once home I find a familiar ritual in releasing them from their pots (the cardboard goes in the compost), stretching out their compacted roots and nestling them into whatever vessel I’m in the mood for: sometimes it’s a fancy glass bowl, at other times it’s a weathered terracotta pot. If the garden moss is plentiful – and after the wet autumn we’ve had it is – I’ll lay some over the top like icing and leave the whole lot on the kitchen table to marvel at, while consuming the Weetabix and tea. Once the flowers go over, I leave the bulbs to die back outside before planting them in the garden.
You can do this without buying new plants. An unearthed snowdrop – bulb, roots and all – becomes a remarkable living specimen when suspended in a vase with water. Polly Nicholson of Bayntun Flowers shows the earthy loveliness of turning hellebores and narcissi into house-friendly kokedama balls by wrapping their roots in moss and binding them with string.
Potted winter stalwarts such as crocuses can be brought in when they flower and then taken out again. If you’re blessed with scented shrubs such as Sarcococca or witch hazel, cut some stems and put them wherever in the home you can regularly take a good sniff.
This seems the best of both to me: bring the garden inside, and activate hibernation mode happily among its spoils.
[See also: The new age of magical thinking]
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously