Tips on how to plan design changes for your garden - plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week.
By Hannah Stephenson
It may still be a bit nippy to be doing many jobs in the garden, so now's a perfect time to relax with some of your Christmas leftovers and make design plans for the year to come.
Ideas may come from magazines, a TV programme or may simply be inspired by a neighbour's garden, but it's best to buy yourself a notebook and jot down your plans.
Whatever you decide to do, whether it's creating a new bed or making radical changes with hard landscaping, work out how much time and effort you're prepared to spend on the project and the subsequent maintenance that will require.
It's no use planting a garden full of high-maintenance plants if you're not going to be there to deadhead, water, feed and keep everything under control.
Think about where you are going to site any new project. If you're planning a raised bed for vegetables, make sure it's going to be in a sunny spot with not much shade from overhanging trees, or you won't be able to grow a huge variety in there. And remember that veg patches can be high maintenance too, as weeding, watering and feeding is likely to be a regular requirement.
If you're a seasoned gardener, you'll already know what type of soil you have. If not, a simple soil test kit can be bought from any garden centre which will indicate what type of soil you have and, from there, you can find out what types of plants will grow in it.
If your garden is dry, shady, or you have clay or acid soil, you need to work with it. Don't try to fight it by changing the make-up of the soil because no matter how much organic matter you add, eventually the original type will come through. If you want to grow acid-loving plants such as azaleas but have alkaline soil, you're best off growing them in pots of ericaceous compost.
Other practicalities to consider when creating a new area include drainage, storage space, available electricity and water. If the garden's on a slope, you may need to level the site or install a drainage system. If you're planning a paved area, make sure it's level but with enough camber to drain effectively or you'll end up with puddles you don't want.
Think outside the box and you may come up with a more interesting design. Never, for instance, make narrow borders along boundary fences, because following the boundary lines will just emphasise the shape of your garden and make it look smaller.
If you're creating a new bed or border, the minimum width should be 1m (40in), and even that will restrict what can be grown. It's better to go for a border twice or even three times that width for dwarf shrubs and modest perennials.
Strong shapes are important and need to blend with your house, keeping everything in proportion and making both outdoor and indoor space merge seamlessly.
The general rule of thumb with proportion of planting and features to open space is one-third planting to two-thirds space. Without the space, the planting and features within the garden cannot be seen to best advantage.
Even if you have an awkward-shaped garden, you can create spaces within it which can be explored - it might be a circular lawn or a winding path, fringed by planting and focal points to give it depth and structure.
You may want to create a change of level in your garden to define specific areas, using terracing, or install points of interest along the way such as a water feature, seating or an eye-catching statue. Consider light and shade, which can also be used to change the shape of a space by creating the illusion of depth and distance.
Of course, gardeners are always interested in new plants, but often the plants which can be guaranteed to steal the show are old favourites, so look at what you already grow successfully in your borders, the plants which like your soil and their situation, and perhaps consider repeat planting further along.
Most of all, when planning, work out what you want the garden for - is it to relax, to experiment with gardening or to use as a family-friendly play area? If your children are regularly playing football in it, forget a bowling green finish or planting delicate plants around the lawn which are likely to get their flowers knocked off by a ball.
And remember that fashion plays its part when planting. Years ago, hybrid tea and floribunda roses were in vogue but now alliums and tree ferns have become the must-have plants - but will they still be in fashion in a few years' time?
You may be better off with something you're happy with on an everyday basis as the basic structure of planting, but you can vary the colour and type of seasonal planting from year to year.
Best of the bunch - Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) This clump-forming, tuberous perennial produces stemless, cup-shaped, bright yellow buttercup-like flowers on a ruff of light green leaves.
It grows to just two to three inches tall but makes a good ground cover plant from late winter to early spring and is ideal for naturalising in dappled shade beneath deciduous trees and large shrubs, especially in chalky soils.
Bulbs should be planted in autumn in fertile, moist but well-drained soil. Winter aconites spread rapidly to form colonies, which can be divided after flowering.
Good enough to eat - Forcing rhubarb January is the perfect time to force established outdoor rhubarb by packing straw or leaves around a clump and then covering it with an old bucket or bin with some ventilation holes in it. Only force strong clumps of plants that are at least three years old. You may have to weight or rope the bin down to prevent it being blown away.
The plants should not normally need watering and the blanched shoots should be ready for pulling by the beginning of March.
Rhubarb that has been forced indoors in December can be harvested in January, pulling sticks about four to six weeks after forcing. Pick them every few days to reduce the risk of grey mould and throw the plants away when harvesting has finished.
Three ways to... dispose of Christmas tree 1. Recycle it yourself, trimming the branches and cutting it into small sections before shredding it in a good-quality shredder such as the Bosch AXT 23 TC, which was voted Which? Gardening's best buy for more woody material in a recent trial. Pine trees are low in acid and, once shredded, the released nutrients are relished by perennials and shrubs, offering them additional protection for the final few months of winter.
2. Many local councils have their own recycling schemes in place for Christmas trees. Ring your local authority to find out if your refuse collectors will pick up your tree or if you have to take it to a recycling plant yourself.
3. If you have bought a container-grown tree, after Christmas it can either be planted out with a good chance of success or can be left to grow on in its pot, but it is much better in this case to re-pot the tree in a larger pot. It is seldom possible to re-pot trees in this way for more than one season.
What to do this week :: On your winter rambles around the garden, take the hoe with you and knock out weed seedlings before they get too big.
:: Spread organic matter such as well-rotted manure or garden compost, even if the soil is rock hard. The soil will soon thaw when the weather improves.
:: Continue to remove leaves from the lawn on a regular basis.
:: Disperse worm casts on the lawn.
:: Check container plants which are sheltered from rain by the overhang of the house eaves and make sure they have not dried out.
:: Move displaced deciduous trees and shrubs, if you haven't already done so.
:: Plant deciduous hedging plants such as beech, hawthorn and hornbeam in well-prepared ground, if weather permits.
:: Keep climbers such as ornamental vines, ivies and Virginia creeper in check to stop them working their way into window frames and doors or causing damage to drainpipes.
:: Start ordering summer-flowering bulbs to give you the best choice of variety.
:: Cover ground which you have dug over, but are not yet ready to plant, with polythene sheeting to stop weeds taking over and to warm up the soil for any young plants to be set outdoors early.