This Month in the Garden – December 2018, January 2019

What can a gardener do in December and January except sit indoors in the warm and think of Spring ? That idea has attractions but they are not very profitable ones when there is a lot you can do which will make Spring, when it comes, more rewarding. To start with you can say goodbye to Autumn by clearing up any leaves that are still laying about. Particularly on the lawn, leaves are not just unsightly but will damage the grass.

As I have often said, it is much better to bag them up in a black plastic sack than put them in the green bin. Make sure the leaves are wet, pack them tight, tie the bag and stab it many times with a fork to aerate the leaves and put it somewhere where it can be forgotten for a couple of years. I have just had the pleasure of clearing summer bedding from a flower border and digging in three sackfuls of lovely leafmold. To be honest, I didn’t do the digging. I have just recognised the onward march of time by having some professional help in the garden.

I hope you have already recognised the the onset of winter by bringing tender plants indoors or under glass and, if not too late already, do something about it. Dahlias which are cut back can be stored in compost in the dark but plants  with leaves need to be kept in the light and given water occasionally. I generally prune fuchsias and geraniums fairly hard so they shoot again in Spring but, at the moment most of them are still flowering and looking better than they have done all summer (glad to feel the end of the heat) so I shall leave them alone for the time being.

Plants that are susceptible to frost damage bur are not too big to bring under cover are best wrapped in horticultural fleece. This can make the garden look unsightly and an alternative is to keep the fleece handy and cover the plants when frost is threatened but that does mean listening carefully to the weather forecasts. I am going to try that this year with my camellias. the yellow choiysa ‘Sundance’ is worth treating like this.

This is the best time for moving deciduous shrubs and fruit bushes that could be in a better place. Start by digging a hole in the new position big enough to accommodate the plant to be moved. Loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole and incorporate compost or manure. Dig a trench all round the bush at the edge of its branch structure, then dig under the bush until you can move it. It may be necessary to cut some roots to do this. Pull and lever the bush onto a sheet of plastic, put as far as possible under the root ball and then slide the bush to its new position. Back fill the hole. Tread in firmly and water.

Apples and pears should be pruned now and through to February. On established trees the main job is to cut back at least two thirds of the new growth. Sizeable straight shoots can be kept for vegetable sowings, tying with black cotton to keep birds off vulnerable plants or holding back straggly growth the can damage a lawn. The aim is to keep the centre of the tree open and avoid crossing branches so this may need some cutting back of thicker branches. Deciduous ornamental shrubs may need pruning to reduce size or retain a good structure. Cut out any dead, damaged or diseased branches and encourage new growth by cutting out up to a third of old branches at ground level. When reducing the size of a shrub always cut back to a branch rather than just chopping back generally.

If you sowed sweet peas in October these will need watering occasionally and the first strong shoot should be nipped out after six leaves or so to promote strong growth. On a wet or cold day you can still use the time profitably by washing pots and seed trays so that you are ready for the next growing season. When the urge to stay indoors gets really strong, use some time to plan things for next year. Check seed packets to see if they can still be used and order or buy new ones. Order plants from nurseries and remember that bare root roses ordered now from a nursery are a much better buy than container plants bought at a garden centre.

Keep out of the garden over Christmas itself and have good time.

Jeremy Arthern

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