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This Month - December

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Editorial

    I managed to shove the lawn mower around last weekend - about the 27th of Nov to get the last of the leaves up - and there were a huge number of them - half the lawn had no visible grass at all. It's a great way to pick them up and chop them at the same time, very satisfying too leaving perfectly clean grass in my wake, emptying the grass bag what seemed like dozens of times was well worth the effort. Next years leaf compost should be ready by early to mid summer as a result of the cutting up and mixing with grass clippings.

    I've just about fully winterized the garden now so I don't need to do anything until the spring. A couple of half-hardies that have died back need removing and some canes that provided support for sweet peas. My very large Rhododendron in a container has kept being blow over the last few days too, so I'll attach that to a piece of board with string or wire passing over the top of the container, giving it a much wider base will keep it upright. I think I need to move a couple of other permanent container plantings too to more sheltered places so they don't get battered to bits by the winter weather.

    As I'm sitting here it's got warm (ish) and damp, but there's a veritable Beatrix Potter scene enacting itself outside in the back garden. A couple of squirrels are still hopping and skipping about as they have been for the last few hours since I got up, blackbirds and robins keep passing by to help themselves to the left-overs from last night's take-away and a few lazy rabbits keep lolloping through every now and then, probably a bit despondent at the lack of nice new growth resulting from the cold temperatures of the last couple of weeks. I've decided that winter isn't so dull in the garden after all, I just need to look to the animal life rather than plant life to provide the interest! Just tempt it in with food in various positions, I did think about making some kind of squirrel obstacle course so they have to entertain me before they get their rewards.

    Shopping online - I've decided that I'm just not temperamentally suited to walking around the shops, so for the likes of me aside from ease and convenience and all the rest of it, online shopping is the perfect solution, in fact I do wonder how I ever managed when it wasn't an option. I've even come up with a way of integrating with the rest of the family, now when we go out to wander aimlessly looking at shiny sparkling things we don't need, I use the opportunity to look at some real-world examples of stuff I've seen online. I then come back home and find and buy it online if it's required - there's also the helpful addition of some "cooling off time" - and I don't have to struggle with bags on the park and ride bus.

Jobs to do

    Look after your Christmas tree. If there's much of a choice, place the tree in the coolest position you can - this is probably not an option for most people as it'll be in the living room - just makes the other stuff more important!

When you first get the tree home take a thin slice off the bottom of the trunk with a sharp saw, this will give access to the open water carrying vessels that may have become calloused over or bunged up while being transported. Place the tree into a bucket of water for up to a day before bringing it into the house (if you are allowed to by excitable children that is!). Make sure the support you get for the tree has a reservoir for water, this will keep it going more than anything else that you can do. Treat it like cut flowers, keeping the water topped up - but make sure you turn the lights off before you do this for safeties sake. Some people recommend adding things to the water the tree stands in (fertiliser, aspirin, a small amount of bleach etc.), I've never bothered, but you could try, it's one of those things that no-one ever seems to test as it only happens once a year.

    Place any containers that contain shrubs or trees in a more sheltered position. Some such as palms and Cordylines will benefit from being tied up and wrapped in hessian sacking or horticultural fleece for protection (i.e. they might not survive if you don't). Others don't need to be placed out of sight which defeats the object somewhat, but will benefit from being put in a less exposed position so they don't get battered by the wind and rain so much. Bring out again to a more prominent position next spring when they're starting to grow again and the weather has calmed own.

    Likewise winter flowering pansies. They don't really start to perform until early spring and will look better the more sheltered they are, so don't make them face the worst.

    Apply preservative to exposed wood. I noticed at the weekend that one of the shed sides that I didn't get around to creosoting in the summer - the side that takes the brunt of the weather - is looking rather damp from the inside. So the first chance I get when it's dry I'll be giving it that coat that I didn't get around to because I was too busy laying around reading in the sun.

    Tidying jobs continue, most of the leaves are off the trees now, though there's still a few to come.

    Prune overhanging trees and shrubs, cut stems back to the junction with another stem or right down to ground level so that the plant doesn't look too "stumpy".

    A good time to take note of what your garden looks like and maybe fill a few gaps or replace some of the stark twiggy winter forms with evergreens to give your garden a bit more of a year-round attractiveness. Try not to have too many plants that just look the same all year round. Evergreens that flower and / or produce berries are the best value rather than too many unchanging conifers.

    Grasses and other plants with ornamental seed heads should be left through the winter so the frost can pick them out on crisp sunny days. The dead parts of the plant will also help to protect dormant shoots hidden in the depths from the worst ravages of any frosts.

    Main tree and hedge planting time. Between now and the end of the year is the best time to plant any trees and hedging or other bare-rooted shrubs. These are best bought bare-rooted from nurseries, this way they will be dormant, but have a more extensive root system than those grown in containers. They should be planted as soon as you can so they spend the minimum time out of the ground. This applies in particular  to ornamental cultivars which are less tolerant than most.

If you can't plant them straight away, then "heel them in". This means cover the roots with soil in a temporary position so that they don't rot or dry out. Don't be tempted to leave them in the bag or other wrapping even for a short time. If you haven't space to put them in the soil, then "planting" them in sharp sand (a couple of quid from a builders merchant for a 40kg bag) will do nearly as well (dries out quicker than soil). You could even do this in a bucket or other container as long as there are drainage holes in the bottom so the roots don't sit in water.

Why bother? Why not wait until it's a bit warmer and more pleasant and plant out of containers?

1/    Bare rooted trees and shrubs are cheaper, as little as half the price for trees and cheaper than this for shrubs though the range is smaller, so you can either save money or spend the same and get a much bigger tree.

2/     Planting now means that they get off to the best possible start in the spring. As soon as the plants wake up and start putting their roots out, they're already in your soil rather in a pot that will then planted in the soil later, one less jolt to the system.

So brave the elements and do it now! Make sure though that you add lots of organic matter to the soil when filling the planting hole and that you stake trees well.

Archive - selected parts of previous year's newsletters from this month

    The gardening is virtually done for another year I look out of the window and the leaves are just about all off now (and fully swept up and composted I'm pleased to say). There's a grey squirrel sitting a few feet away pinching bread put out for the birds and a couple of magpies at the top of the willow tree (2 for joy..), the sun is shining and it doesn't seem at all like winter. We had a couple of mild frosts in October but nothing since (3 for a girl now, oops update - 4 for a boy).

The seasons are changing yearly - this is getting uncanny - squirrel has gone and there's a small flock of about a dozen house sparrows that have alighted in his place, I was just going to mention the changing face of wildlife and plantlife in the gardens. When I was a boy and food would be put out for the birds, I'd be a bit disappointed by the multitudes of ubiquitous house sparrows, hoping instead to see a few more colourful varieties arriving (while on the subject, 5 for silver has just arrived in the plum tree). House sparrows have declined hugely in the last few decades and are now a relative rarity.

A study was released recently about the effect of changing climate on gardens and gardening in the increasing temperatures that have been happening in recent years and are predicted to continue.  The findings are that:

The average temperature in Britain is increasing so fast that, in climate terms, gardens are moving south at the rate of 12 metres a day, or 100 miles for each 1C increase in temperature. This rise is expected to be 2-5C in the summer and 2-3C in the winter in the next 50 years. Snow will become a distant memory over most of England and frost a rarity.

Fruit bushes such as blackcurrants here in East Anglia are already producing decreased yields due to an insufficient cold period necessary for bud formation. Some of Britain's most characteristic species are suffering, the shallow rooted beech in summer because of the effects of drought and yews in winter as a result of increased rainfall and waterlogging of the roots.

Extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will increase the rate that plants are able to make their food by photosynthesis. They are estimated to grow 40-50% faster and 10-15% higher producing more flowers and fruit. Hedges and lawns will need more clipping and late winter / early spring flowers such as snow drops will get more and more confused as to what to do when. (I noticed a primrose flower out this morning in the front garden, who knows what that plant thinks is going on? - (6 for gold in the apple now, can't remember having seen so many magpies in the garden at the same time).

In summary, the changes and how to cope:

Negatives

    Lawns will die off in summer and need mowing all winter. Herbaceous borders will dry out and die.
 -  Reduce the size of lawns so some can be watered, replace with gravel areas or other plantings. Make as much compost as possible and dig it into the soil for water retention or scatter it on the surface as a mulch. Use water butts fed from shed / garage etc. roofs.

    Lupins and delphiniums will be confined to the north and west of England.
 - Try to develop a passion for Mediterranean flowers instead.

    Beech trees will die of drought and Yew hedges of waterlogging.
 - Acacia, myrtle, oleander and Italian cypress might now be better for hedges than native English varieties. Also, the compost and mulch thing above will help.

    Some bulbs such as daffodils, bluebells, snowdrops and crocus that need the cold to trigger growth and flowering will die.
 - Mediterranean plants again.

    Fruiting trees and bushes such as cherry and blackcurrant need cold for formation of buds.
 - Figs and olive groves could replace apples in Kent. Grapes would grow as far north as Scotland. (I'm looking forwards to having a giant mango tree in the garden - this time we (hopefully) won't have monkeys pinching them like we did in Kenya)

    Cool-loving plants such as Rhododendrons and Primulas will struggle in the south.
- Plant them in low lying areas, frost hollows.

    Pests such as thrips, aphids and spider mites will breed more quickly in the warmer weather. Termites and the Asian gypsy moth could move into southern England.

Positives

    Autumn colours will be brighter and last longer.

    Oranges, lemons, figs, apricots, nectarines and pomegranates will grow in the south. Grapes will grow as far north as Scotland

    Bougainvillea, a native of South America but common in the Mediterranean, will grow outside in Britain.

    Eleven species of palms will grow in Britain including the Canary Island date palm and the pygmy date palm. Olive trees can be grown in the south.

    You will be able to spend more time living outside in the garden.

(With thanks to ITV in the 1970's for teaching me the Magpie rhyme, and Jenny Hanley from the same programme -  the subject of my first crush)

It turned properly to winter about a week ago, forget those early frosts, they don't count. The onset of winter in Cambridgeshire is heralded by damp cold that comes to get you. Despite the early snowfall we had, it's winter rain and fog that are making life uncomfortable. They both have a vindictive streak. The cold penetrates your clothes and chills you to the bone despite the fact that your eyes tell you that it's above freezing and so shouldn't really be as bad as you think it is. Frost is fine, it sort of meets your clothes and says "Hey I won't bother you if you don't bother me" so it sits there prettily coating the lawn and frosting any seed heads still remaining. Autumnal rain makes the temperature rise and you can almost pretend that it's an accident that the leaves have fallen off the trees. Yes winter definitely arrived last week.

The cold even got through to my compost heaps (horrors!). A weekly ritual recently has been opening them up at the weekend and ventilating them with a satisfying response of steam rising from the microbial activity within, or at least being able to feel the warmth just below the surface. This week - nothing, just cold unresponsive leaves and chickweed (latest addition last weekend) - didn't even enjoy peeing on them like I normally do (adds nitrogen and water to the mix).

The birds seem to think it's winter too. I stopped giving them any scraps as the bread would sit there on the grass getting soggier and soggier, slowly falling to bits and without the lawn mower to tidy up by shredding  and spreading it. A couple of nights ago I put out a pizza base we didn't eat on the bird table, by the time I got up there was no sign of it at all. I guess that means it officially time to start feeding the birds. I can even start buying up the cheap bread again at the end of the day in the supermarket! - ok it's a guy thing - apparently we see getting a bargain as something to do with a successful hunt.

All this means that I've got to reluctantly accept the fact that Christmas is so near that it can't realistically be ignored any more. It always hits me like this every year. In October or maybe even September, there are signs in the shops of Christmas activity leading me to shake my head, but at least plants the seed of Christmas even though it's far away. I spend the next two months happily thinking it's "far away" and then suddenly it's almost on you.


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