December

December is when I batten down the hatches and try to sort things out behind the scenes. The truth is that I do less gardening in the whole month of December than I do in a normal week of March or April. The combination of the shortest days and the wettest, dreariest weather means that the garden shuts up shop and hunkers down waiting for the year to pass.

Christmas is, of course, the highlight for many of us and as well as all the usual celebrations, for me it marks the moment when I begin to get my garden back and to re-engage with it. This happens slowly through the coming weeks but it begins right there when I step outside on Boxing Day morning.

But occasionally there are a few days of dry weather early in the month and I try and get out and clear as much fallen, soggy foliage from the borders as possible. Anything standing without support is left as cover for the birds and to add a skeletal adornment to the garden, but a soggy carapace of rotting vegetation never does any good.

And as the garden is stripped it becomes almost entirely green and brown. But the one sign of life – the one reminder that Spring will come – is the fresh green of evergreen trees, shrubs and hedges.

GREEN!

The winter garden absolutely depends upon good evergreens and I regard them as the most important plants in any garden at any time of year because they are the bones upon which all the floral flesh hangs.

Yew makes the best evergreen hedge as well as large topiary and Irish Yews are perfect for small gardens as they make a bold statement without taking up much space. Ten years ago I would have said that Box was essential but the combination of box blight and box caterpillar make it less attractive. However if neither are present in your area no other plant is better for smaller hedges or topiary. Holly makes a fine tree, hedge and topiary albeit in places where you will not brush against it too much.

I like to use mahonia of all kinds in the borders and sarcococca, Hebe, Choisya, Portuguese laurels, Viburnum, Camellias, Phillyrea, pittisporum, skimmia, pyracantha, Euonymus and the magnificent Holm Oak are all really good evergreen options.

WIND

My garden – all our gardens in the UK – has been battered and bashed by wind already this winter and no doubt there is plenty more to come.

There are the obvious and very visible issues such as fallen limbs, but that kind of damage is relatively rare. Much worse are the unseen or less immediately apparent effects of the wind.

Where the wind comes from matters a lot. So in my garden our predominate wind comes from the west and is always wet and blustery whereas a Southerly blows dry and warm and is therefore usually welcome. The North wind often brings snow and the East wind – mercifully very rare – is vicious and cuts through to your very bones.

Wind can affect the growth of all kinds of plants as much as any other factor.The fruit trees on the northern edge of the orchard here at Longmeadow are completely lop-sided with their branches permanently streaming southward away from the north as though frozen in a windy blast. The reason for this is that the new growth on the north side is being stunted by this cold wind whereas the shelter of the tree itself, however small, is enough to protect the branches on the other, south-facing side. Hence the lopsidedness is not a case of extra growth in one direction but absence of growth in the other. You see this most dramatically on coastal cliff tops.  But of course the effect of this is only really noticeable long after the winds have gone.

So any shelter you can provide, whether from trees, hedges, shrubs or woven fences will make your garden grow better. All these filter and slow the wind down, robbing it of its sting. A solid barrier is not so effective as the wind tends to rise up and over it, coming down with all the greater force

CHRISTMAS TREES

Until a couple of hundred years ago the only evergreens available in midwinter were Yew, Holly, Ivy, Box and Juniper and the latter was and still is pretty rare in this country. There is no reason why any could not still serve as a Christmas tree. But the vast majority of people will be buying their Christmas trees from a range of non-native specimens, the most popular of which are Norway Spruce (picea abies), The Nordman Fir (Abies nordmanniana,) or the Colorado Spruce (picea pungens). All three are very good, have specific virtues and can last for a long Christmas season if looked after properly. All three will also grow in most gardens if they are bought with healthy roots and planted carefully as soon as possible after Christmas (see below).

Spruce is actually short for ‘Spruce Fir’ which is the English translation of Picea Abies and a corruption of ‘Prussian Fir’. The Norway Spruce has been grown in this country for at least the last 500 years as a timber tree. Unlike our own evergreen natives – all of which grow conspicuously slowly – Picea Abies grows very fast  and for centuries it was the main source of softwood, or deal. Although almost everyone nowadays only comes into contact with it as a tree small enough to fit easily into the living room, it is officially Europe’s largest tree and given the right conditions of damp, cold winters and damp, cool summers, it will grow to more than 200ft tall.

It is very resistant to cold and frost-hardy although it never thrives when grown on chalk or limestone. If you get confused between any of the Spruces (Picea) and Firs (Abies) – there is one easy way to differentiate the two species. The cones of spruces hang down whereas the cones of Firs stand up like candles.

Abies nordmanniana, The Caucasian or Nordman fir is much more truly evergreen than the Norway Spruce in that it only sheds its needles after about 15 years before replacing them. It also has more horizontal and rather more dense branches. The effect can make a more compact, more evenly shaped Christmas tree. It originates from the Eastern shores of the Black sea and will grow even bigger than the Norway Spruce, reaching 225ft. It grows on limestone in its Caucasian home but like the Norway Spruce it grows best in moist, cool, slightly acidic conditions.

Personally I like the Colorado, or Blue, Spruce, Picea pungens, best as a Christmas tree. Although it comes from the southern states, it originates from a high altitude, so is very hardy and grows into a tall, very straight, rather beautiful tree, with glaucous blue needles the colour of cardoon or artichoke leaves. The high altitude and bright mountain light gives it a rather stiff habit which is one of its main attractions as a Christmas tree. If you do plant one in the garden it will grow much stronger if given maximum sunlight.

Whatever tree you choose here are tips to make it last as long as possible:

  • DO get one with roots if possible, even if you are not intending to plant it.  Pot it into as large a container as you have and fill this with sharpsand or compost. Sand is perfectly good for the few weeks it will be indoors. Water it and keep the sand moist.
  • Buy a tree holder for a cut stump with a reservoir and keep it topped up with water. Treat it like a cut flower. This will do more than anything to stop it shedding its needles.
  • NEVER place your Christmas tree by a radiator. It will respond by immediately shedding its needles. Keep it as cool as possible. All these evergreen firs have adapted to cope with cold winter weather and will react to central heating heat by dropping their leaves in order to conserve moisture. A draughty hallway is ideal.
  • Take your tree to the council shredder after Christmas if you are not going to plant it so it can be recycled.

HISTORY OF THE CHRISTMAS TREE

Trees have always been magical to humans. But the earliest record of a tree being dressed as part of an overtly Christian celebration is as late as 1521, in Alsace, and it did not become widespread in this country until Prince Albert bought the Prussian habit with him when he married Victoria in 1840. and pictures of the Royal family’s Christmas tree, draped with candles, presents and sweets, provoked widespread mimicry. Until that point of the mid nineteenth century Christmas was grudgingly and sparsely celebrated by modern standards and Scrooge’s attitude was less exceptional than it is nowadays perceived to be.

This was not always the case. In medieval times the modern long holiday of Christmas Eve to New Year was observed as far as money and circumstances would allow.

What to do in the garden this month:

ONIONS FROM SEED

This is always one of my Boxing Day jobs. Onions are mostly grown from sets put out when the ground is ready between January and April, but seed sown ones have the great advantage of starting earlier so having a longer growing season and, best of all, there is a much wider range of varieties to choose from than the very limited selection of sets that any garden centre can provide.

The seeds are sown in plugs of potting compost – ideally three or four seeds per plugs – and put somewhere warm to germinate. I plant them out as small blocks of seedlings in spring as soon as the soil warms up.

SHARPENING TOOLS

If it is hammering with rain outside or simply so cold your fingers cannot function, you can still go through all your tools and make sure that they are in as good condition as possible for next year.

One of the most satisfying jobs is to clean and sharpen all cutting implements. Hoes can be sharpened with a rough whetstone so they slice through weeds rather than bruise them, secateurs can have all rust removed with wire wool and a little elbow grease and then sharpened as you would a knife so that they can easily and accurately. Sharp secateurs are both better for the plant because they leave a neat, clean cut rather than tearing at it, and much safer for the gardener too because you can focus on where and how you are cutting rather than trying to force it at all.

CLEAN AND SERVICE LAWN MOWERS

Rather than leaving it till you want to make the first cut of your lawn next Spring, now is the time to give your mower a good once-over before putting them away for the winter. Wash it down and scrape off any encrusted grass. Drain any petrol from the tank. Check all screws and bolts to ensure they are properly tightened. Oil the blades and all moving parts and unless it is running and cutting exceptionally well take it for a service and sharpen by a professional rather than wait until next Spring when they will be inundated. Finally put it away somewhere dry and safe in the knowledge that when you need it in earnest it will perform properly at the first asking and throughout the next cutting season.

PLANT HELLEBORES

My Spring garden is full of hellebores – some over twenty years old but many selfhybridised from the original ones. This has given me hundreds of plants but the downside is that most are rather muddy in colour -as is the wont with most oriental hybrids. So every year I treat myself to a few really good new varieties and add them to the collection to both extend the range and to reinvigorate it with the clean, clear colours that can range from pure white to the almost black inky purple of ‘Black Diamond’ or ‘Queen of Night’.

Hellebores are usually expensive to buy but they are good value because they last for a very long time and occasionally a selfsown hybrid marries the best qualities of its parents rather than blending the worst.

Hellebores have deep roots and I always dig a bucket-sized hole and add mushroom compost or leafmould to it when planting. Keep them well watered for the first year but thereafter they need little attention. However a December job is always to go through them all removing any leaves that have fallen past 45 degrees or that are affected by blight. I then finish the job in midFebruary so that the flowers can be clearly seen.

TAKE PICTURES

Take the time to go outside and photograph every aspect and angle of your garden. It does not matter how abandoned, neglected or empty it may be. Photograph what is there with a detached and enquiring eye. This is a process of reckoning, of stock-taking and will provide you with hard evidence of what lies at the bedrock of your garden. It is a truism that any garden can look good in high summer but only good gardens look good in midwinter. So use the pictures to plan both how to make your garden look really good at this time of year and to plan for the glorious days that will start to creep in before very long.

POINSETTIA

Hundreds of thousands of poinsettias will be given as gifts this Christmas and with a little care these can be made to last looking good for months. Poinsettias are only really comfortable in damp warmth. Modern poinsettias grown as houseplants are treated with a growth retardant to create the familiar short, bushy shape we all know and love but in their native Mexico poinsettias grow at the margin of the forest to a large 10ft high shrub .

They do not like cool nights, very hot dry rooms or big fluctuations in temperatures, so keep them where there is a constant average temperature, avoiding draughts, cold windows or even very bright spots that can get very hot in the middle of the day. They like plenty of water but let the compost dry out before giving them a really good soak, standing the pot in a sink full of water and leaving it to stand for 10 minutes or so before letting the excess water drain from the pot.

RHUBARB

If you have productive rhubarb clear away any rotting stems and foliage and mulch round (but not over) each crown with a generous layer of manure or compost. If your rhubarb is a little tired now is the time to divide some of your crowns to stimulate fresh vigour. The older, central section of the big, corky roots should be put on the compost and the younger, outer sections of root replanted with the buds about an inch below the surface. Do not pick any stalks from these new sections for the first year and cut the flowers off as they appear. By the second year you should have a good crop and a really good one two years after planting.

PLANTING SHALLOT SETS

Plant shallot sets close to the shortest day and they will be ready to harvest on the longest day, at the end of June. If you have a piece of ground ready that is dry enough for the soil not to stick to your boots then plant them directly outside, 9 inches apart in rows about a foot apart. This makes them easy to hoe. Do not completely bury them but leave the shoulder of the bulb and tips clear of the soil. I suggest covering them with fleece until March, by which time they should be well rooted and able to resist birds tugging at them. Check them weekly to firm back any that have been dislodged.

Alternatively, if like me, your soil is wet and heavy for months on end, you can plant them now into plugs, just burying them deep enough to sit in the compost. Keep them in a greenhouse or cold frame and then plant out when your soil is ready and has warmed up.

Suggested varieties: ‘Red Sun’ (lovely rich red) ‘Longor’ (French long bulbs with pink flesh) ‘Topper’ round, golden bulbs with a sweet flavour.

February

February at Longmeadow is a busy month. The weather can still be very wintry but we take every opportunity to finish the winter jobs and to prepare for spring. All over the garden there are signs of new life appearing every day – modest at first with snowdrops, aconites and crocus all at their best, but as the month progresses the Spring garden fills with hellebores, pulmonaria, daffodils and vigorous growth from the later flowering bulbs such as tulips, cammassias, alliums and fritillaries.

The soil is still cold however so all our sowing is done indoors, growing seedlings on so they are ready to plant out as soon as the ground warms up.

SOW TOMATOES

I like to sow tomatoes in two batches, the first now and another in a month’s time, both to stagger the harvest and as an insurance against bad weather, scattering the seed thinly on the surface of peat-free compost in a seed tray and then very lightly covering them either with a layer of more compost or of vermiculite. Water them well and put them in a warm spot to germinate.

When the seedlings emerge make sure that they have as much light as possible and when they develop their first pair of ‘true’ leaves – that is to say leaves, however small, that are recognisably a tomato rather than the ones that grow initially – you know that they have roots, and should be pricked out into better compost and individual pots or plugs to grow on into young plants ready to plant out in May.

PRUNE LATE FLOWERING CLEMATIS

The late flowering clematis (categorised as Group 3) such as C. viticella or C. jackmanii produce their flower buds on new shoots. This means that none of the remaining stems left from last year will carry any flowers at all. Now is the time to remove the whole lot of it. You cut right down to the bottom decent sized bud (and if you are in the north of the country you may have delay this for a few weeks until such buds are visible), although I like to leave a foot or two as an insurance against further really bad weather. In any event you can be very drastic, reducing a large clematis like C. rehderiana from 20 plus feet of thick growth to a few twigs. However this will ensure healthy flowering later in the summer from low down on the plant right to the top. When you have cleared away the prunings, mulch the clematis very thickly. Garden compost is ideal, but anything is better than nothing because the worst thing for a clematis is to become too dry.

PRUNE BUDDLEIAS

If you live in the south or a sheltered area now is the best time to prune the Butterfly bush, Buddleia davidii, and it can be done any time in the coming month in colder areas. It produces its flowers on new growth so if it is cut back hard new, just before it begins growing, you will both stimulate extra new shoots and make sure that the shrub has as high a proportion of flower to wood as possible.

If your buddleia is growing in the open it can be cut back very hard indeed, leaving just two or three sets of new shoots from the base. If it is growing in a border it is better to cut back to two or three feet from the ground so that the new growth does not have to compete with surrounding herbaceous plants for light and air.

If you cut the pruned stems into short lengths they can be placed as a bundle in a corner to make excellent cover for insects and small mammals and thus add to the wildlife in your garden.

CHECK TIES & SUPPORTS

This is not a glamorous job but an important one. Go round your garden checking all supports, wires, ties and structures that will be carrying climbing plants this year. Any that are damaged or a bit ropey should be repaired or replaced now before they need to be used and before new growth begins that might be damaged by such repair work or even your heavy footwork in a border…

PLANT DECIDUOUS HEDGES

This is a job few of us do every year but most of us will do at least once in our gardens and now is the time to get it done. The ground has been very wet but ideally these should all be planted by the end of this month. Prepare the ground well by digging a trench at least 1 metre wide but only a single spade’s depth. Remove every trace of perennial weeds. Loosen the bottom of the trench by digging it with a fork. Do not add any compost or manure at this stage. Plant the hedging plants carefully, firming the excavated soil around the roots, either as a single or staggered row but resist spacing them too close together, as you will get a thicker hedge from strong plants. Water very well and then mulch all bare soil thickly with compost, well-rotted manure or chips and keep it mulched for the next three years to suppress all weeds and retain moisture. By then the hedge should be growing strongly and can have its first trim.

SOW ROCKET

Rocket is deliciously peppery and succulent and makes a delicious early spring salad leaf. Now is the best time to sow it as it germinates very fast and will grow in relatively cool weather whereas most lettuce needs warmer conditions to grow well.

Either sow directly where the crops are to grow or into plugs that can be germinated under cover and planted out when the seedlings are growing strongly. In both cases leave plenty of room – 6-9 inches – between individual plants. This will help them develop a strong root system which will produce stronger growth and a much greater number of leaves to harvest. The leaves are best cut as needed and will rapidly regrow as a result.

Another advantage of sowing rocket at this time of year is that it avoids flea beetle – which will leave a rocket leaf pinpricked with scores of tiny holes, each one of which callouses and makes the leaves tough to eat.

ROSE PRUNING

I once asked a veteran rose grower when he thought the perfect time to prune roses. “When the crocuses are in flower,” he answered. So mid-February to mid-March is ideal.

In principle rose pruning is easy and unfussy and can be done perfectly well with garden shears to create a neat, even shape. However it is worth bearing in mind the following:

Most shrub roses flower on new growth – so there will be very few flowers on the shrub as you see it now.

Remove any crossing or crowded stems and if in doubt where to cut you will do no harm to remove these right back down to the lowest visible bud.

Cut the weakest growth hardest. Most roses flower on new growth so the harder you cut, the stronger the new growth – and the more flowers you will have.

Don’t worry too much about cutting above an outward-facing bud – it really does not make much difference.

It is important to let light and air into a rose bush so try and leave it as an open, well-spaced set of branches with plenty of air in its centre.

PLANT ROSES

Why not plant a red, red rose on Valentine’s day? In fact: why not plant a rose of any colour you fancy this Valentine’s Day?

Dig a hole that is wide rather than deep and remove every scrap of weed. There is no need to add compost to the planting hole, but I do advise using mycorrhizal fungi to aid fast root development. Sprinkle the powder on the surface of the planting hole and do not cover as it is important that it makes direct contact with the roots.

Planting height is quite important for roses and like clematis, it is better to plant them deeper than most shrubs. I aim to have the point on the stem where the rootstock and top are grafted fully buried so that when the soil is back-filled just the branches are sticking out of the ground. This will secure it firmly and also reduce suckering.

Water it in really well and then prune all weak shoots back hard to encourage fresh, strong new growth. Finally, give your Valentine rose a generous mulch with garden compost or well-rotted manure.

DIVIDING AND SPREADING SNOWDROPS

Now, just as they finish flowering, is the perfect time to plan next year’s snowdrops. Snowdrops spread much better ‘in the green’ – i.e. when they are still growing and flowering – and you can expect a 100% survival rate using this method whereas they are notoriously tricky to grow from bulbs. Take your largest clumps and carefully dig them up, replacing or leaving half. Split the remainder into cup-sized clumps and replant in a new position, ideally in light shade, having first forked in some garden compost. Water them in well.

CHITTING POTATOES

Potatoes grow from sprouts that emerge in spring from the tubers and we are all familiar with transparent sprouts emerging from potatoes stored in the dark at this time of year. But if seed potatoes are exposed to light now the new sprouts will be knobbly and dark green.

When these ‘chitted’ potatoes are planted they are primed to grow away extra quickly. This is s especially beneficial for first earlies or maincrop varieties grown where blight is likely.

Place the seed potatoes in a seed tray or egg box and put somewhere bright, cool but frost free. The knobbly shoots will start to appear after a few weeks and can then be left until the soil is warm enough for planting.

SOW BROAD BEANS

If the ground is at all workable then I always try and sow some broad beans in February for an early crop. As soon as the soil warms up a little and the days get longer they will have had enough of a start to provide a picking a week or so earlier than the later ones – and that is a treat worth preparing for. Broad beans are legumes and although they add nitrogen to the soil they do best in ground that has had plenty of organic material added to it.

Sow the bean seed about 8 inches apart in double rows with about a foot or so between the lines and plenty of space – ideally about 3 ft  -between these double rows. You can draw a drill and place the beans in it and then cover them back over or, as I do, simply push each bean directly into the prepared soil. The best variety to use for these early beans is ‘Aquadulce’ although ‘Witkiem’ does well too.