It's good for the garden all of this cold weather;
I planted the absolute last of the spring daffodil / narcissi bulbs between Christmas and New Year at the bottom of the garden in a recently cleared area where the now removed old fence used to be, later than I'd intended, but they should be ok.
This turned out to be one of those jobs that grew and grew. The soil was at a perfect level of dampness for digging (it's thick clay when you get to about 8-12 inches down) so I decided to finish off the last 2 panels of the fence each of which was 3.6m long of picket fencing. The hardest job is digging down 2 feet through the heavy clay for the posts to go in, so as it was ideal conditions for this I started on the tip of the iceberg.
I sawed the wood to size and shape some time ago and I suppose it was ultimately my mega-calorie intake over the festive season that spurred me on to finishing it off. It's quite a physical job and so suitably wrapped up against the cold I was surprisingly warm once I'd got going for a bit though I soon had to go and get my gardening gloves as the cold metal of the wheel barrow handles was quite painful. The cold weather (just above freezing, frost on at least some part of the lawn the whole time) meant that I was able to break the job into little chunks with the valid and very welcome excuse of needing to leave the post-fix concrete I used overnight to set as while it set in about 10 mins at warmer temperatures I decided it needed much longer at around freezing point.
It earned me considerable Brownie points with the family demonstrating my ruggedness and admirable work ethic while they were largely lazing around eating. The reality was a few very nice hours spent in the long low rays of the winter sun with the dog and my thoughts for company while having the results of a straightforward and worthwhile physical task to provide me with a satisfactory glow while I indulged in suitable comestibles
This is a good time to set about some heavy-duty pruning of deciduous trees and shrubs now that you can see the structure of the branches with the leaves gone. Almost all trees and shrubs can be cut back hard now fairly safely. Just watch for two things:
Snow and frost damage - If you've had a lot of snow this winter the chances are that you may have trees or shrubs that have been damaged by it. The build up of the weight of snow can snap off branches leaving a large untidy open wound. Have a walk around the garden and if you have any such damage clean up the cut with a saw or secateurs, taking the broken stump closer to the trunk if possible. Disease is much less likely to be able to enter through a small clean cut than a large ragged tear. Sometimes the branches are hanging off where they are easy to see, if they have fallen completely though they aren't so obvious so look carefully for branches on the ground.
Right that's it, my gardening year has come to a close. Time to start the next one.
Jobs / Tips
Don't forget to Wassail your fruit trees on January the 17th. Wassailing was an annual custom in Britain where fruit orchards were common right up to the early 20th century. It entails celebrating good heath to the fruit trees and an encouragement to fruit well, usually taking place early on in the New Year on the 17th of January (old twelfth night). You go out and toast the trees and throw your toast over the trunk of the largest tree. Dancing around them and generally making merry is equally as effective.
Whenever I mention this to people there's always one who says "do you have to be naked?" well it's not a requirement and I've never heard it mentioned, but if it makes you feel better and is not done in public view, I guess it can't hurt. Just make sure you have somewhere warm to go later, it can get cold on a January night.
The average person consumes about 9000 calories on Christmas day against an average daily requirement of 2000. So maybe we can all make a resolution to work it off in the large gym attached to our house where we keep the plants. Do you have any digging to do? Weeding? I weeded at the end of November thinking that that was it for a few months, I now notice with horror that's loads more have sprung up in the month since then, the mild weather and plentiful rain are to blame.
If you do summon up the energy to go out and dig, leave the clods of earth as they fall off the spade, don't bother breaking them up, the frosts will do that for you. Frost isn't all bad.
Make plans. Consider plants and planting. Put canes or a hose pipe across the garden to mark out planned beds, patios or other features. Then ignore it for a few days, look out of the window and change it all totally if necessary. Winter is a good time to prepare for the coming growing season. Take your time when deciding on your grand design and get it right before you start on it when the warmer weather and breaking buds tempt you beyond the confines of the fire-side (whether metaphorical or literal). Planning
If you've already decided - then get a patio or deck ordered and laid now. You'll certainly get it done quicker and probably also cheaper than later on. Make your mind up and order in March and the chances are you may not get to sit out until June. These areas extend the season of use of the garden. Lunch alfresco on a warm April day surrounded by the fresh green shoots of spring is a real delight. Hard surfaces
Stay off the grass when it's frosty. It will recover if left to thaw out, but walking on it can damage many of the blades. I think of it in terms of having cold fingers, simple things like knocking on a door suddenly become incredibly painful, it's like that for the grass being walked on when frozen. Eldest son puts it terms of having your frozen ears flicked by the bigger boys when standing at the bus stop (would he wear a hat when we told him? - No).
Order seeds and plan what you'll grow from seed this year. I think of this as buying genes for the garden. Perfectly packaged and prepared for growth with all they need to get started. Seeds are natures own genetic technology. If you've never grown anything from seed before, it's one of gardening's greatest wonders.
Main tree and hedge planting time still. The winter months are the best time to plant any trees and hedging or other bare-rooted shrubs. These are 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 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?
We're in the middle of the dormant season now, but already thinking of the growing season to come. I often think how lucky we are to have such pronounced seasonal changes, it all helps to keep us fresh as well the garden.
Back again on the 1st of February
Archive - selected parts of previous year's newsletters from this month
Today is New Year's Eve, part of that no-mans-land between Christmas and New Years Day where you're not entirely certain what day of the week or date it is. In fact yesterday I woke up convinced that it was today until I found out that it clearly wasn't. I haven't been so pleased since the time I was about 14 and woke up one Saturday morning and started getting ready for school before my Mum told me I didn't have to go. So I had an extra free day and have spent much of it in the garden as it's mild if grey and dreary.
I hope you had a good Christmas and New Year celebration. There seems to be a movement every year of naysayers who try to stop people celebrating Christmas properly, or at least make them feel bad about it. Well if they want to give each other token gifts and sing carols while covered in sack-cloth and ashes with the occasional beating from a switch made of birch twigs (organically grown and gathered in a sustainable manner from old growth forest of course) then that's up to them and it's fine by me. Just as long as they don't parade their holier than thou attitude in front of me and expect me to join in. Have you ever had a gift from one of these people? probably not, Was it worth having if you did? almost definitely not. If they're young, they're probably poor and so are marginally excused (but I bet they get their parents to unsustainably do all sorts of stuff for them) and if they're not so young, they'll live in a house that's far bigger than they need and readily burn up the air miles to go on eco-friendly holidays (no such thing, apart from camping in the back garden).
What's up with the old curmudgeon now you may be thinking? Didn't get the Nice socks or Nintendo Wii he wanted? I had a great Christmas, a family affair where we sat around and enjoyed each others company, ate lots of all our favourite foods and gave each other gifts that we probably spent too much on and spent a lot of time thinking about and hunting down (that's because I'm a man - by contrast, my wife gathered hers). I think that these things are good and I commend them to the reader.
It's perfectly normal human behaviour to have a large feast that huge amounts of effort have gone into, to save resources through the good times for it and then in a relatively short and intense period enjoy all of those things while surrounded with people that you like being with. I bet prehistoric humans when they'd killed a few extra mammoths, put the odd leg aside in a pickling jar, or pureed and preserved some tree ferns or Ginkgo leaves for the festival of "Grunt" or "Ug-grunt" or whatever it was they called it. One thing is certain though, whenever humans can, they plan for and have large extravagant celebrations, marked by consumption of food and resources, and anyone who tries to make you feel bad about that is missing the point.
The yin to this yang is to do things for others as well - for charity if you like, I've had a standing order to the NSPCC for years. So while you're still feeling well rested, well fed and hopefully still retain some of that happy holiday glow, why not set up a regular payment to one of those causes you've always intended to help. Tell yourself you're putting away a metaphorical mammoth leg for others while the going is good see here.
December started out very strangely for me, a Delphinium that I had cut down sometime in August in the front garden after it had flowered had responded with a new bunch of leaves and threw up a flower spike with the first flowers opening on the 1st of the month. Testament to the mild autumn we had. I watched it growing through November certain that it would get cut down by a frost, in fact I almost cut it down myself so the plant didn't waste too much unnecessary energy in producing something that I was convinced would never happen. The spike was a bit more sparsely clothed with flowers than normal, but it was quite splendid to have it well past the middle of the month and nearly half a year later than when it normally does its stuff.
December is probably the month where I do the least in the garden and spend the least amount of time thinking about it too. The days are at their shortest for one thing so I just don't see much of it, there's Christmas to think about - if not actually do much about until fairly late on and things in general are slowing down and coming to a halt - apart from my maverick Delphinium that is.
Addicted as we are to the concept of a White Christmas, green is the most common colour at Christmas time in England, that and the steely grey of the sky of course. The muted colours and the cold, damp weather with occasional frosts makes for a most melancholy time in the garden. I'm not a winter gardener I have to admit, I did wander around yesterday after the frost taking a childish delight in poking the ice on top of the water butts and noting with satisfaction that it was too thick for me to easily break.
There were, I noted with further satisfaction some nice healthy, tight looking buds on the plum tree, preparing to burst forth with beautiful pink petals in a few months time. The first signs of spring flowering bulbs are starting to appear in various places, particularly when I brushed aside some of the remaining autumn leaves that had been blown into sheltered corners.
Then there were a few reminders of what I hadn't done, a limp and barely alive Osteospernum that grew very large and vigorously last summer. It was too big to dig up and bring under shelter, and I had no space for it. The intention was to cut most of it back and then cover it with a large mound of compost to try and protect it from the frosts and see if it would grow again next year. I think of these things in good time and then it just falls out of my brain at some point.
A bit like Christmas really. Some time in late October I have some Christmassy thoughts and congratulate myself at being well prepared this year and that I won't be caught out again. So successful is this self-congratulation that it carries me all the way through until about the 20th of December and I realise I still haven't done anything.
It might not actually be too late for the Osteospernum and in fact as I'm typing this it's sitting there casting admonishing glances at me every time I look out of the window. Right next to it are some forget-me-nots which I love. All have to do about them is pull them up when they start get too vigorous and widespread for their own good, why can't all plants be like that?
My view of the winter garden is that it should be just that - a view - out of a window. I quite like taking the dog for a walk even when it's grey and damp especially when the crows are flying around bare tree tops in a sort of Bruegelesque way. They remind me that there is still life around ready to get going again. But as for winter gardening, it's a necessity rather than a pleasure, the saving grace is that it's a task that tends to pay far greater dividends later in the year, digging over heavy soil, planting large trees and shrubs for instance.
Why do we garden - Gardening makes us realise who we are and our place in the scheme of things. Many people have lives that are completely detached from the cycles of nature, and that is very unnatural.
Many people have jobs where they are under pressure to perform and meet "mutually agreed targets" i.e. the boss says implicitly "you are expected to do this" and if you don't agree, you will be asked to "question your future direction". The only goals that I have ever had "ownership" of have been ones that have no input at all from anyone else. An analogy that springs to mind is "Here is a bucket of manure, we'd like you to "own" it, would you like to choose that the bucket be red, blue or another colour?". Well actually I choose that I don't have it at all, (OK, I wouldn't, I'd have it and use it as a mulch, but you know what I mean).
Gardening reminds us that we can plan, we can do our best, we can even try to do the impossible, but ultimately we are working with nature and we are certainly not in control. Gardening reminds us most of all that we are human, not only are we working with nature, we are part of it. It comforts us that it's OK to be human and ourselves, not dancing to some-one else's tune that we can't even whistle. We have our disasters in the garden, but for every unexpected disaster, there's an unexpected success - "nature abhors a vacuum" and there will always be something that will succeed. The only secret I suppose is not to give up - as long as you keep trying, something will come of it, nothing and no-one is a total failure, there's always something somewhere that will work for you.
Happy new year 2006, except of course if you're Moslem in which case it's 1426, a Buddhist for whom it's 2550, Jewish when it's been 5766 since last September or Chinese when you'll be celebrating the Year of the Dog at the beginning of 4703 at the beginning of February.
Not that it makes the blindest bit of difference to our gardens, the seasons come and go, the plants grow, set seed and die. Worms drag down dead leaves to feed on the bacteria and fungi that feed on the leaves. Birds that feed on the worms live in the trees that are nourished by the activities of the worms.
The changes in where we draw the lines of time are as important to nature as are the puny ornamental competitors that we pit against the bindweed, dandelions and native oaks.
Despite all of the talk in recent years about global warming, we seem to having more of a traditional winter in temperature terms at least if not in snowfall. The frost finally melted yesterday at the shady bottom of my garden for the first time in a week.
It got down to minus 7 centigrade one night (information thanks to my new plaything, an electronic inside - outside min / max thermometer, an excellent boys toy), which is quite impressive for Cambridgeshire.
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