This Month in the Garden – December 2015 / January 2016

TMITG_ds1The traditional gardening advice for this time of the year is to clean up your tools, wipe them with oil, hang them up and do something else, like getting ready for Christmas. The advice is perfectly sound but I do wonder if climate change means that we don’t need to shut down as completely as, perhaps, we used to. Really hard winters are a rarity nowadays, and two generations have passed since the hardest winter that I remember in 1962/3 when the temperature remained below zero and there was thick snow on the ground throughout January and February and half of March. Milk was delivered to your door in those days but the milkman couldn’t get to our cul- de- sac in Surrey and we had to go up the hill with a sledge to collect it.

Even if the tools aren’t going to be put away so completely this is still a good time of year for thinking about them, both for keeping them in good condition and for reviewing whether you need  ( or would like) any new ones. Things for the garden make excellent Christmas presents.

There are some general principles about buying garden tools that are worth keeping in mind. Get the best that you (or someone else) can afford. Gardening can be tough work. Tools need to be strong enough to cope with what is asked of them and they need to work as efficiently as possible to save you effort. It is worth paying for stainless steel digging tools because they cut more cleanly and last longer. Pay attention to the size and weight and comfort of tools, especially the handle. Digging is hard enough work without adding the weight of a heavy spade.

A dog is for life, not just for Christmas is one of the present buying slogans and it applies equally well to wheelbarrows (and many garden tools). If you buy a new barrow do some research. Beware of cheap lightweight metal barrows that collapse under any weight and there are some excellent tough plastic ones with metal frames. Check the tyre width; a hard narrow tyre cuts into soft grass and a broad pneumatic one is preferable.

Garden accessories always make useful, and often, cheap presents. From twists and ties, through gardening gloves, sowing trays and plastic pots. A container to take your small tools and bits and pieces into the garden with you is useful and good things to put in it are a stainless steel dibber for potting up seedlings,  a Darlac sharpener for secateurs and shears and a  pruning saw. The list is unending.

Another indoor job for this time of year is planning the flower and vegetable seeds you will need next year. Check through the unused seed in packets you have already got and see if they can be used next year. Many varieties can be used for at least two years. Tomato, brassicas and lettuce are long-lasting. Parsnips and sweet corn are best fresh every year.  Beans will probably be usable for a second year and it is always worth having a second go with annual and perennial flower seeds. If you sow at the beginning of the period indicated on the packet you will have time to see if they germinate and buy and sow more if they don’t. You will get a wider selection of varieties if you buy on-line or from a mail order catalogue and this applies particularly to flowers if you want a particular colour. Garden centres often sell only mixtures; this applies particularly to sweet peas and petunias.  Keep in mind the advantages of plug plants which are sent to you in late spring as packs of  little plants. They avoid the hazards of growing seedlings on windowsills if you haven’t got a heated greenhouse.

If it’s not really frosty, December and January are good months for pruning fruit trees; That’s when a pruning saw comes in useful. There is always a temptation to use secateurs or even loppers on branches that are too thick for them and that can damage them by twisting the blades so they no longer cut properly. Always make a straight vertical cut ( whether at right angles or on the diagonal to the branch) rather than a ‘twisted’ cut  which can, again, damage the blade. Don’t prune plum trees at this time of year as disease can enter a fresh cut. Leave this till late summer after fruiting.

Jeremy Arthern

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