December in the Garden
Jobs and tips for December in the garden, what's looking good, observations, plans.
Jobs and Tips
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.
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.
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.
Plants for December
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.
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.
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 plant life 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:
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. (6 for gold in the apple now, can't remember having seen so many magpies in the garden at the same time).
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 East Anglia is heralded by a 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 unrotted 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 somewhat burnt 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 - it's a guy thing - apparently we see getting a bargain as something to do with a successful hunt.
Picture credits: Holly in snow - Randi Hausken, Baerum Norway used under CC2 Attribution Share and Share Alike Generic license / Mistletoe with berries - Schnobby used under CC3 Attribution Share and Share Alike Unported license
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