by Dick Handscombe,
holistic gardener living in Spain for over 25 years

January is the best month for a thorough winter cutback and cleanup in most gardens along the Costas and in coastal inland valleys. Above 300 metres, some tasks are best left until after the snowy and frosty weather is past.

The Main Objective
To prepare the garden for the next twelve months of healthy and scenically beautiful growth, flowering and fruiting.

The Main Tasks
Providing the weather is fine, there is a busy month ahead in established gardens.

  1. The pruning of trees and shrubs in the manner that will best stimulate flower buds and create aesthetically attractive plants and remove unnecessary, diseased and dangerous branches.
  2. The reduction of the height and spread of plants to a size consistent with the size and style of garden and to maintain the best internal and external vistas.
  3. The clearing out of dead and diseased plants; also any annual and perennial weeds.
  4. The removal of pockets of rotting leaves and twigs in flower beds or under hedges unless being allowed to build up as natural mulch under evergreen shrubs.
  5. The splitting and transplanting of large clumps of perennial plants, including summer flowering bulbs and rhizomes.
  6. The removal of all rotting leaves and other debris from rockeries, trim back the more evasive plants and re-grit around the stems of those liable to rot off if not given excellent drainage.
  7. The recycling of as much garden waste as possible into a compost heap.
  8. The loosening and aeration of hard compacted soil. At the same time, add beneficial composts or well rotted manures as mulches and worked into the soil.
  9. The preparation of new or cleared flower beds ready for spring plantings.
  10. The clearing out of decaying matter and excess plants from ponds and the cleaning up of fountains.
  11. The pruning of fruiting vines, shrubs and trees and the thinning of strawberry beds and transplanting of young suckers to expand the bed.

Some Detailed Guide Lines For Some Specific Plants
Bougainvilleas – Unless established plants are given a hard pruning they are liable to become leggy and shapeless and even grow out of control. Uncontrolled plants can grow beyond the edge of the roof and well above boundary walls. Firstly they look unsightly and secondly they can get torn from the walls by high winds when in full leaf and flower.
Cut back the side shoots along each of the main branches to stimulate flowering shoots.
Cut back the main branches to give shape.
Cut out all suckers – these are the paler green straight stems with larger leaves.
After pruning, check that the main branches are securely but loosely tied, to allow for the expansion of trunks and branches. Thread the tying up wire through an old piece of hose so that it doesn’t cut into the stems as they grow. Treat younger plants a little more gently concentrating on pruning to shape.

Lantanas – Need to be well pruned annually to stimulate heavy flowering and stop them from becoming very leggy. Each of the several varieties needs a slightly different treatment:
Low growing: Purple and white trailing – cut back leggy branches by at least half their length and trim to shape. Yellow and orange/red varieties – prune lightly to shape.
Medium height and spread shrubs: – Yellow, yellow/orange, pink/yellow, yellow/white and white varieties – cut back all flowering stems to 5-10cm from the trunk, just above a new budding point. The pruned plants will look very bare, but you will stimulate the sprouting of a multitude of new flowering shoots.
Standards: – Yellow/orange variety can be trained to create attractive standards – cut to shape to encourage side shoots.
Climbing: – Pink/yellow, white and orange/yellow varieties can be trained to grow up or over walls – prune side shoots to shape and leave the tallest branches intact.

Hibiscus – some Spanish gardeners cut these back very hard, but we don’t find this necessary. A shortening of the branches by 30-50cm, depending on the size and situation of the plant will give a good shape.

Plumbago – shorten branches to half their length and generally tidy up. Normally this will produce a well shaped bush. However, if the plant has become very leggy, cut back almost to the base. Also cut back plants in containers hard, to stimulate a close flowering bushy growth. Cut back the main stems and side shoots.

Jasmine – cut out all leggy shoots and trim to shape. If you need to reduce its size further, cut back each lateral branch hard.
Oleander – trim to size and shape annually. Hedges and stand-alone specimen plants can grow very large and become quite leggy. It is therefore a good idea to prune back very hard every second or third year. Shorten all branches by a few feet. They will soon branch out again. In between, just keep them tidy and cut out any suckers. If you have a really leggy plant or hedge and can live with reduced privacy for a couple of years, cut back all but one stem to 40 centimetres above the base. The stem that is left should be cut out when new shoots grow up. Do wear gloves when handling oleander branches and leaves. The sap and flowers are poisonous.

Begonia – the pink variety is the most prolific and must be pruned right back, leaving just a framework of woody branches to give an attractive shape to next year’s growth. Normally other varieties just need trimming back to shape.

Galan de Noche – should be finished flowering by now, so cut back hard.

Flower beds – trim back herbs (eg. lavender/rosemary) to shape. Deadhead currently flowering perennials such as chrysanthemums. Cut back margaritas etc. to encourage spring growth. All dead leaves should be removed from gazanias – if you have large plants divide and replant where you have gaps.

Palms – cut out some lower fronds (mind the spikes) and generally tidy up the trunk. Cut off any dead bunches of flowers or dates.

Hedges – all types benefit from a ‘short back and sides’ in the winter. Cut back the top to a height that gives you privacy without being impossible to prune safely. Trim both sides to tidy and reduce the overhang over adjacent shrubs and flowerbeds. A good trim also stimulates flowering shoots on hedges. If the hedge is getting leggy, cut out some of the hard thick internal branches to stimulate new thicker growth.

Trees – once established, these can grow very fast. Some species, including mimosas, have very shallow roots and if allowed to grow very tall, there is a danger of their being uprooted in winter storms. If you let them get out of hand, you won’t be able to prune them easily. In general, prune trees to restrict height and improve their shape. On all trees cut out dead branches as they appear.

Roses – cut back shrubs to two or three buds of the previous year’s growth. Cut out any suckers coming up from the base. With climber and ramblers, cut out old and weak stems with few flowering shoots. Cut back the rest to shape. After pruning, mulch around all roses with a good layer of horse manure

Terrace Pots – generally tidy up your pots. Remove dead plants and cut back dead stems, leaves and flowers on plants you want to keep. Clean off moss from the outside.

© Dick Handscombe