There is very little for the gardener to do in the garden in January, save reflect on the year gone by and look forward to the gardening season ahead. Spend time with a notebook and pen, jotting down the elements of your garden that work well, and areas to improve upon. It's also a good time in the year to make a list of plants you want to grow so you can begin to order seeds now to plant in early spring. There are lots of simple ways to transform a garden and to help you achieve the full potential of your garden in the season ahead we asked designer and gardening presenter James Alexander-Sinclair to give us ideas on giving your garden a New Year brush up. He also got some thoughts from well-known gardening friends.


20 ways to transform a garden


Trounce the slugs

snail with a striped shell moving over dry leaves
Slugs and snails are the gardener's nemesis but the best way to remove them from the garden is simple. Pick them off your plants and feed them to the chickens. Photo: Getty Images.

In a popularity contest for garden pests then slugs and snails would surely be at the bottom. The best way to get rid of them is to have children. These can be sent out at dusk with torches and buckets to collect as many as possible (small fingers are best at gathering the more elusive slugs). Our record here with two working children and one adult is 600 in an evening. The chickens ate well that day. The toads, hedgehogs and thrushes keep an eye on the rest.



Drip feed hosepipes like this one, delivers the right amount of water, exactly where its needed to avoid waste. Very useful in times of drought. Photo: Getty images

I know that the idea of the British summer being drippy holds firm in all our minds but there will be moments when we have mini-droughts and things will need watering. Our knee-jerk reaction is to rush around with buckets and hose pipes; this often results in wasted water. Why not consider an irrigation system that delivers the right amount of water exactly where it is needed? Leaky pipes work well under a decent mulch. This is particularly important if you have planted a new hedge.



Group of mature female friends in their 30s and 40s gathered around a fire pit in a British garden.
A garden isn't reserved for warm weather and summer months. Wrap up warm, light a fire and enjoy your outdoor space all year round. Photo Getty Images.

Who said that we could only sit in our gardens in summer? Who said that terraces and benches were only for balmy June evenings? Who said that we can only eat outside while wearing shorts? Nobody did… There is no earthly reason (especially since the invention of the woolly hat and the thermal long john) why we should not take advantage of a crisp, sunny day to have a barbecue in March. No reason why we cannot light a fire and huddle round drinking soup and looking at the winter stars. So stop being so wussy and use your garden more.

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Grow topiary

Geometric shaped topiary adds drama to this garden design and acts as a contrast to the looser-looking grass and border planting beyond.

The ideal mixed border should be a great tumult of colour, texture, foliage, light, movement and birdsong. It should entrance and seduce from breakfast to nightcap for much of the year. However, like spaniels, a border likes a bit of routine and order and one of the very best ways to achieve this is through using topiary. Hedges in strong architectural shapes act as a perfect foil to waving perennials; pouting roses would look just as good. Yew or box are the classics but you could also try holly, beech or hornbeam.


Add late-season flowers

Dahlia's are the heroes of the late-summer garden. This is a much-loved cultivar, Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'.

To extend the flowering life of your garden. To have a garden that looks good in May is a doddle; August is bit trickier. Never underestimate the power of an annual to plug a lacklustre gap. I shied away for years having had a number of unfortunate encounters with bedding lobelias when young and impressionable. Nowadays I would not be without them, in particular Nicotiana mutabilis, cosmos, cornflowers or the glorious Tithonia rotundifolia. You could also try the big-leaved castor oil plant (Ricinis communis) and lots and lots of dahlias.


Light up your life

Light adds atmosphere don't overthink it. A bare branch wrapped in fairy lights can be a beautiful thing. Photo: Andrew Montgomery.

One of the most effective ways to extend the use of your garden is through lighting. Of course the main reason for lighting is to show you where the paths end thus avoiding awkward moments when your guests tumble into the Berberis. But there is little more dramatic than a stark, leafless tree lit beautifully. Its branches form a tracery of shadows against fences and the slightest breath of frost stands out like diamonds in a coal cellar. It is a relatively simple exercise, easily achieved with the help of an electrician.


Let the grass grow

Let your lawn loose and try a freer, more natural look this year. If you need to cross the lawn to reach another area of the garden, mow a section through the long grass.

For me lawn mowing is Sisyphean drudgery, to many others the lure of the perfect mown stripe and mole-free sward is a spiritual quest. To those of you, like me, who feel a warm Saturday behind a mower is a warm Saturday wasted, I have a suggestion. Let it grow: let parts of your lawn develop a certain shaggy looseness through which you can mow paths to interesting places. This works particularly well around trees.


Use pots

Pots in varying sizes add interest to the garden and are the perfect solution for small gardens short on space. Remember, plants in containers need extra TLC.

Containers are a bit troublesome. I’m sorry, but it is true. They need lots of watering and feeding and hate you going on holiday. But they add an important element to every garden so do not ignore them. Instead try to ensure that the ones you have are always full of interest. If you want to be hip and cool, try zinc or aluminium; for the more traditional look use good quality terracotta or silvered oak, which both get even better with age.


Keep a record

Book and pencil on garden table with old camera and summer flowers in garden
Document the changes in your garden this year, so you have a record of what worked and what didn't. Photos can be a great visual aid.

We all have cameras and no longer have to factor in two visits to the chemist and a week’s delay before we see the results. We must use this technology to our advantage by taking photos of our gardens, in particular the bits that do not quite work. I promise you that memory alone isn’t good enough. You will stand there in November and scratch your head as you to try to recall whether the clump of campanula needs to be shifted left or right. Take pictures and make notes, and you can track your highs and lows.


Brighten boundaries

You can maximise on small spaces and add interest to boundary walls by growing plants vertically. Climbing roses and clematis are attractive options but don't forget some edibles love to grow up too, so why not grow a small squash or edible flowers? Photo: Jason Ingram.

We all have fences, walls, hedges or something that defines the edge of our properties. I think the time has come for boundaries to stand proud. If you have a fence, make sure it’s a thing of beauty in its own right. If you have climbers to decorate it, make sure they are healthy and floriferous (perfect for fences are Clematis viticella). If you have a hedge, clip it with love and dedication. And if you have a wall let the bricks be straight and true.


Grow a green roof

Sedum mats
Green roofs can disguise garden buildings and are a great benefit to wildlife in urban gardens.

The green wall is not an easy project for the average time-strapped weekend gardener. The green roof, on the other hand, is more straightforward. Any shed, bin store or outhouse is ripe for conversion, provided that it is in good condition and strong enough to take the weight. Plant mat-forming plants such as Sedum rupestre or S. hispanicum, some herbs (thyme and chives) and do not forget Dianthus deltoides.


Hang out in a hammock

Lilacs and hammock in backyard garden
Gardeners forget to take time to enjoy their garden. Change that this year and celebrate your hard work. Photo: Getty Images.

Gardeners seldom relax: the garden is a very demanding mistress, luring us out of armchairs with the temptation of a weed that absolutely must be pulled right now. This year please try and make time for just looking (glass of wine optional), for there is no point in all this work and worry if you never pause to admire what you have done. Buy a hammock: lie back and watch the buzzing bees do their work.


Move your shed

Build your own
If you're putting hard work into making your garden look its best, don't neglect any garden buildings or furniture. A lick of paint does wonders.

Most potting sheds are tucked away in the nether parts of the garden, usually looking out on to a pile of discarded pots. A lot of time is frittered away in sheds so why
not re-site yours so it is looking at something gorgeous: a view, a border or a quiveringly beautiful tree. If the shed itself is more shabby than chic then it could have a coat of paint and become a folly. Just a thought.


Scent your doorway

old house door of a historical row house in Vicars Close, Wells, England
Plant scented flowers and herbs by the front door for a fragrant welcome home. Photo: Getty Images.

Imagine this: you are arriving home late, fumbling with the door key when you are suddenly enveloped in scent. It almost makes the prospect of the approaching hangover bearable. Always plant scented stuff next to paths and doors. Christmas box (Sarcococca) and honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) for winter; sweet rocket (Hesperis) and lilies for summer



A water feature using an overflowing pipe where water falls into a moss covered stone basin surrounded by ferns
This small feature is a simple solution to introducing water into the garden and the moss-covered stone trough adds maturity. Photo: Getty Images.

Every garden should have some water, even if it is only a bird bath or small container with a water lily. Formal ponds work well near the house, surrounded by borders or a strip of well-mown grass. Wildlife ponds are best in a less manicured part of the garden: a bit of long grass and overhanging shrubbery gives shade and cover for whatever amphibian or insect chooses to take up residence.


Celebrate seedheads

Cephalaria litvinovii
Leave seedheads over the winter months to help feed birds and wildlife and to add interest when very little else is in flower. Photo: Jason Ingram.

Many of us have by now got used to the idea of leaving most herbaceous plants standing into the winter rather than wading in with the shears as soon as things get a bit tired. Grow plants specifically because they make beautiful corpses: in particular echinaceas, cephalarias, eryngiums, rudbeckias, sanguisorbas and many of the taller grasses. On frosty days they will warm your hearts and the birds will be terribly grateful.