How can an ancient Chinese philosophy of life help us appreciate our gardens this January?
Most simply, the theory of Yin and Yang describes a world being made up not of opposite and opposing forces, but an experience in life where events and things are actually connected, sometimes complimentary and more often interdependent. So Winter is not the opposite of Summer but they are two sides of the same coin that transform into each other and rely on each other. One is not bad and the other good, but that they are two experiences that we can bring ourselves into alignment with.
If Life and Death are lovers, January is their secret rendezvous.
Originally from Australia my first Winter in England was overwhelming. I saw everything dying around me and the light was shrinking each day. When I saw my first cherry blossom in the Spring I felt reborn! So, I realised, things die back in the Winter so that they will survive and be stronger for the next Summer.
The decay we see in our gardens are forming the compost and rich soil for next year’s plant needs and the beds becoming fertile for the dormant seeds of Nigella, Nasturtiums and Marigolds. The cold season brings about the deaths of some plants that have had their time and new plants will grow into the space left behind. Plants that have lost their leaves have drawn inside themselves for protection and to conserve water before any possible freezes. The vibrant sap that plants and trees have been building up all Summer has fully descended into their roots. (Indeed the only sap left in the trunk and branches of trees is higher in sugar content forming a kind of anti-freeze as the sugar syrup has a lower freezing point than water.)
We often want to tidy up our gardens in January but just like order and disorder were seen as interdependent in ancient China, one leading to the other and back again, so to we can see mess and cleanliness in that way. The chaos of leaves, windfalls and storm scattered twigs are vital homes to the bumblebee, woodlice and hibernating hedgehogs. It is not until Spring sounds its trumpets that we need to get rid of the old to help bring in the new.
One quality of Yin is stillness. We can enter our garden and be affected by the quietness of life. The world spins more slowly on its axis and so can we as we move about. All our Yang efforts over Summer, the endless stimulation of the internet and TV, can fall away and we can be awash with the silvers and blacks and deep wet browns of a garden no longer full of restless and reproductive energy. It can be a time of contemplation where we can concentrate on where we have got to in our lives and relationships, what we achieved last year and for a minute let go of future hopes and plans. It can be a time of loneliness and, if we can allow ourselves to feel this most difficult of emotions, from this place a deepening can come, giving us a clearer understanding of what we need. A fallow feeling that tells us what is most precious.
We can enjoy the skeleton of branches that reveal the growth history of the trees and the windy forces that bent them and the sunlight that seduced them in particular directions. The seed heads of perennials, hanging like small empty purses, robbed of their seeds by birds and squirrels and the frosts that enliven the patterns of leaves and greenhouse windows. most of nature had gone downward. Summer’s wonderful electric expansion is a dim memory, seen in a few frozen grapes on a vine.
We can prepare for Spring gently, pruning fruit trees, roses, grapes, figs and wisteria knowing, as we cut off Summer’s excited growth back to fat fruiting spurs, that these places will be exactly where the plant will squeeze it’s juices and form its fruits in the year ahead.
And then the very first daffodil, or a burst of yellow from the spidery flowers of Witchhazel or bright Aconites in the woodland part of our garden. Even in the Yin there is Yang. Pink Cyclamen grow proud amongst the dry old roots of a Yew tree.
Janus, the Roman God of Transitions and Doorways, often thought of as the origin of the word January, is a two headed deity, looking to the past and also to the future. The world is momentarily suspended, Yin and Yang is in balance, they become indivisible, our garden becomes the theatre for this ancient stillpoint.
What to do this January in your garden
The biggest jobs are the pruning of deciduous plants like Roses, Wysteria and fruit trees.
The best place to go to learn proper pruning methods is a professional gardener, the RHS Pruning Manuel or Youtube !
Example- If you type in “Pruning a small apple tree” you will get all sorts of well meaning gardeners showing you what they do. Choose to listen to an expert though there are different options. Try RHS first. Also make sure the apple tree looks like your one as there are different types.
Also in January you can sow in your greenhouse all sorts of vegetables ready to be transplanted in Spring into your plot.
Plus you can start to force your Rhubarb by placing as big a pot as you can find over the heads.
Where to visit this January
If you want to walk off those extra Xmas calories you can take a trip up to Kew Gardens. They have such a huge range of trees even in the middle of winter there is so much to see. Plus you can hang out in the cafes or Tropical Greenhouse for a warm break. They also have after-dark tours. Or visit a local forest!