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.

July

As my birthday is in July, it marks the beginning and end of my personal year and certainly during the course of the month there is a seasonal shift and the garden changes. The easy, open lightness of June is replaced with a richer quality and this is played out in the borders where the colours all become stronger. The first half of the month belongs to roses although by the end mine are mostly finished. Sweet peas are usually at their most bountiful and dahlias, sunflowers, cosmos and the late clematis all start to get into gear.

The vegetable garden in July has peas, beans, new potatoes, beetroot, garlic, carrots, artichokes and tomatoes just beginning to bear fruit, and late meals eaten outside as the light gently falls around the garden.

July is also irrevocably associated with school holidays and time spent playing outside in the sun. Adults call that play ‘gardening’ but the sense of freedom and the pleasure of being outside on long hot days is just the same.

OWLS

The other day a tawny owl fell down the chimney in our bedroom and spent the day there, perching rather crossly on top of a cupboard before drifting out of the opened window at nightfall.

This garden rings to the calls of tawnies all the year but especially from late summer into autumn when the young are leaving to find their own territories. But for now and for the rest of summer they will remain close to the nest, learning to hunt and mastering their incredibly silent, dexterous flight. Some nights a silhouetted figure will perch on a wigwam of bean sticks in the garden and screech with shocking loudness before slipping anonymously away. For such a big bird tawny owls fly with the muffled softness of a snowflake. Their night sight is good but their hearing is astonishing and the slightest rustle will be unerringly located and the scurrying mouse clutched in their powerful talons before it has heard a thing.

When I was a boy at boarding school in the early 1960’s the matron adopted a young owl and it would sit on her head as she walked round the dormitories, nibbling on her grey hair and pulling it gently in its beak. One night it swooped through the open window and sat on the end of my bed, shifting its feet and looking round with its swivel head. Then, as suddenly and quietly as it came, it flitted, mothlike back out into the dark of the night.

You never forget such things.

What to do in the garden this month:

CUT BACK EARLY FLOWERING PERENNIALS

Early flowering perennials such as oriental poppies, delphiniums and hardy geraniums such as g. phaeum should all be cut back to the ground to encourage fresh regrowth and repeat flowering in a couple of months’ time. This also creates space for tender annuals and perennials in the border. Remove all cut material to the compost heap, weed around the base of the plants, water if necessary and do not plant too close to them so that they have light and space to regrow and flower again at the end of summer.

SUMMER PRUNING APPLES AND PEARS

Pruning apples and pears at this time of year in summer is very useful for trained forms like espaliers, cordons or fans or mature trees that have become to large or crowded because, unlike winter pruning, done when the tree is dormant, this hard cutting back will not stimulate vigorous regrowth. Unless you are training a particular new shoot, remove all this year’s growth back to a couple of pairs of leaves (usually about 2-4 inches) being careful not to remove any ripening fruits. If you are training the fruit to a particular shape, tie desired but loose growth in as you go. Cutting it back now also allows light and air onto the fruit that is ripening and stops your trees becoming too crowded with unproductive branches.

CUT HEDGES

Young birds will have left their nests by now so hedges can be safely cut. A trim now will allow any subsequent regrowth to harden off before possible autumnal frosts.

Start by cutting the sides. Be sure to make the base of the hedge wider than the top – regardless of the height. This ‘batter’ allows light to reach the bottom half and ensures full, healthy foliage down to the ground. Then cut the top, using string as a guide to keep it straight and level. If it is an informal hedge, curve the top over so it is rounded.

If you have an overgrown hedge now is the best time to reduce it in size whereas if you have a hedge that needs reinvigorating, wait until winter and trim it hard when it is dormant. This will promote more vigorous growth next Spring.

If the hedge trimmings are not prickly they will be soft enough to chop up with a mower and added as a useful contribution to the compost heap.

PICKING RASPBERRIES

I would trade the very best strawberry for any raspberries and the summer fruiting varieties are at their best in July. Summer-fruiting raspberries carry their fruit on the canes that grew the previous summer – so all the fresh growth made in the current year will crop next July – whereas autumn-fruiting types such as ‘Autumn Bliss’ produce their fruit on the new-season’s growth. There is a freshness and seasonal treat to the summer raspberries that makes them especially good and we often pick a bowl just before supper and eat with a little cream whilst they are still warm from the evening sun. Heaven!

TOMATOES

It takes a hot summer for many of my tomatoes at Longmeadow to ripen before the very end of July but there is still a lot of tending to be done. Side shoots have to be nipped off almost daily – a job that I try and do first thing in the morning when I open up the greenhouse because the plants are turgid and therefore brittle and the shoots snap off satisfyingly easily.

We water the tomatoes just twice a week unless it is very hot and do not feed them at all in July. The compost added to the beds gives them the food they need at this stage and overwatering can cause the fruits to split.

The hotter it is the better the fruit will taste but it is important to have as constant a temperature as possible rather than great fluctuations between day and night so how much we open and closes the windows and doors will vary a lot. But ventilation is very important to decrease the risk of blight and viruses and as the month progresses I start to remove the lower leaves so that air and light can move around the plants and ripening fruit in the lowest trusses.

FEEDING CONTAINERS

Most plants grown in a container of any kind will exhaust the available nutrients from the compost they were originally planted as they grow and will need a regular supplementary feed for the rest of the summer. A weekly feed high in potash that will help promote root and flower formation (but not over-lush foliage) is ideal. I find liquid seaweed or a proprietary liquid tomato feed to work well.

The secret is to give just enough – and not too much. Too many nutrients is as damaging as too few as it causes rapid, lush growth – often at the expense of flowers or fruit – and which attracts extra fungal and predatory problems. Never be tempted to make the feed any stronger than the instructions dictate and if in any doubt reduce the strength. Your plants and displays will be the better for it.

PRUNING RAMBLING ROSES

It is very important to keep dead-heading roses as the petals fade to encourage repeat flowering, but some roses have now finished all that they are going to do this year. Most ramblers fall into this category, especially in the south of the country and those such as ‘Wedding Day’, ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ or ‘Felicite Perpetue’ should be pruned as soon as they have finished flowering. If you are in doubt as to whether your rose is a climber or a rambler, ramblers tend to be much more vigorous and always have a mass of small flowers that never repeat once they have finished.

Many ramblers are best grown into a tree and these can be left unpruned apart from straggly, unkempt growth. However if space is limited or you training the rose in any way, this year’s new shoots should be tied in or cut back according to the circumstance. Remove any damaged or very old shoots, cutting them right back to the ground.

If training round a vertical support it is best to wind the stems in a spiral. Otherwise, the more horizontal the stems can be trained, the more flowers will be produced next year.

Finally, tie in any loose growth and mulch well.

SOWING PARSLEY

I like to have a constant supply of parsley which can easily be done as long as you make successional sowings and now is the best time to sow the seeds that will provide plants for harvesting through winter and the first part of next spring. When the seed has germinated prick out the seedlings into individual pots or plugs and grow them on until large enough to plant out.

Do not be tempted to leave a sprinkle of seed that develops into a bunch of spindly seedlings but thin and encourage each individual plant to be strong. Space them at least 9 inches apart and allow each to become really vigorous. The well-spaced plants will have a big root and recover quickly from being cut back by throwing up more fresh leaves and thus provide a much better source of leaves for a longer period.

PICKING SWEET PEAS

Few garden chores can be as pleasant or undemanding as this but be sure to regularly pick all the flowers from your sweet pea plants as this is the best way to extend their flowering season. Sweet pea flowers will rapidly develop seed pods in warm weather and these drain energy from the plant and trigger more seed production at the expense of flowers. I have found that the optimum picking period for sweet peas is about 10 days. It is important to remove every single flower – and to enjoy the resulting fragrant bunches of blooms for the house.

Use scissors and cut the stems as long as possible and as soon as you see any seed heads remove them immediately. This way, in a cool summer, the plants can go on flowering right into September.

HARVEST GARLIC AND SHALLOTS

If the leaves are yellowing and seed heads are forming, this is a good indication that garlic and shallots (and onions too if they are ready, although they may need a few more weeks yet) are usually ready to harvest. Always use a fork to carefully lift them rather than yanking them out of the soil by hand as you want to try and avoid damaging the roots and especially the root-plate – where they attach to the bulb.

Clean any surplus soil but do not remove any foliage or roots before putting them to dry thoroughly. This can be done by leaving them on the soil if it is dry and warm, on a home-made rack made from chicken wire stretched over posts or in a greenhouse. Once they are absolutely dry – usually after a few weeks – they can be topped and tailed for storage.