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Botanical Magic

Went to the Christmas illuminations at the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens last night…fabulous event that ‘cast a whole new light’ on the beauty of trees…

Make your own Christmas Wreath?

Make your own Christmas Wreath?

December’s key gardening tasks may seem a little like November’s (and January’s too). But it’s important to be determined and to keep on top of some routine jobs, especially leaf raking (and leaf mould making), and clearing away spent stems and leaves from areas where, if left, they will encourage pests and diseases (but don’t be too tidy). On the other hand, the pace of activity has definitely slowed, so you can afford to take it a bit easier this month (well I  suppose that should read transferring your energies from gardening to christmas shopping, putting up christmas decorations etc.).

Here are a few ideas to help you stay connected to your garden during the onset of winter.

1. Digging (and mulching)

Continue to dig over beds and borders and incorporate as much organic matter as you can (spade work in heavier soils, or border forks in lighter soils like that in Old School Garden). This will not only help to prepare the soil for next year, it will reduce some pests by exposing them to hungry birds. If conditions are too wet or the ground frozen, avoid digging and instead spread a good layer of organic mulch- and let the worms do the work for you over the winter.

2. Clearing

It’s important to clear away old plant debris to prevent slugs and snails setting up home in the warm and damp conditions layers of leaves and stems can create.  Take special care to remove leaves around alpines – they will die if covered up in damp material. It’s also worth covering bare patches around these plants with a top up of gritty compost to aid new growth. But don’t be too tidy as you’ll remove valuable cover and shelter for hibernating animals and insects.

3. Planting

From now through until March is a great time to plant deciduous hedging (bare – rooted whips can be bought from nurseries). Some varieties – Beech and Hornbeam for example –  will retain their old leaves over the winter, and provide good screens. Hawthorn is good for a traditional country hedge and provides a natural, dense barrier (you can add in dogwoods, maple, dog rose and guelder rose to increase the wildlife value). To plant hedging first dig a trench a week or two before planting. This will allow the soil to settle. Then plant out your whips when the ground is moist (but not waterlogged or frozen). If the right conditions are a little while coming either ‘heel in’ your plants somewhere temporarily or keep them in compost in containers. Other trees and shrubs can also be planted – but again, wait for the right conditions.

It’s also a good time to take cuttings from rhododendrons, azaleas, and other evergreen shrubs. New growing tips should be cut to about 10-15 cms long, just below a leaf node, strip off most of the lower leaves and place the cuttings in pots of gritty compost in bright light, keep them moist and at a temperature of around 21 degrees C.

Hedeg planting- now's the time to get started

Hedge planting- now’s the time to get started

4. Protecting

Mulch Hellebores with wood chips to protect their flowers from rain splashes and remove any black spotted leaves (a fungal disease).

Lift any Dahlias in potentially cold and wet positions and store them in a gritty compost or vermiculite somewhere dry, cool but frost-free for the winter. It’s best to leave these (and any begonias you want to keep) in the ground for as long as possible to fatten their tubers- lift after the foliage has been blackened by frost.

Keep an eye on temperatures and if there’s a sudden drop forecast, then erect a temporary cover for tender flowering plants like Rhododendrons, Camellias, Azaleas and Daphne. A few stakes driven into the soil around the plant and a covering of fleece or a sheet should do the job. But make sure the material doesn’t touch the plant and remove the cover as soon as the temperature rises.

Avoid your hose freezing and splitting by stretching it out with both ends open, so allowing water to drain completely. It can then be coiled up and put away somewhere frost free. Likewise make sure any outside taps are covered to protect them from freezing.

Prevent your compost bin from getting too wet or frozen (and so slowing the decomposition process), by covering it with old carpet or plastic sheeting.

5. Decorating

Why not cut some shoots and branches for Christmas decorations and maybe make your own wreaths? Add in cones, dried orange slices, cinnamon sticks, and broad, wired ribbon.

If you normally have an artificial or cut Christmas tree, why not consider buying a rooted one this year? They don’t cost that much more and can be planted out to add a feature to your garden as well as saving a living tree! Make sure that you water a living tree well before bringing it inside and limit the tree’s ‘indoor holiday’ to no more than 10 days, making sure you keep it watered and ideally not in a warm room. Here’s a link to advice on caring for your tree.

A living Christmas Tree this year? In some places you can rent them!

A living Christmas Tree this year? In some places you can rent them!

6. Feeding

Now’s when birds start to go short of natural food, so provide good quality bird food and fat or suet balls, ensuring that feeders are out of the reach of cats. And make sure clean water is available and remains unfrozen.

7. Pruning- or not

Have a quick whisk round trees and shrubs and cut out dead, diseased or dying branches. The spurs on smaller fruit trees can be thinned out, and new horizontal tiered branches on Espaliers can be tied in. Apples, pears, quinces and medlars can be pruned. Cut down the canes of Autumn fruiting raspberries (or leave these in place until February if they are in an exposed position) and prune gooseberries, red and white currants.

Now is the time for coppicing native trees and shrubs. This technique is good for limiting the size of trees in small gardens, turning a tree into a multi-stemmed shrub. It will also provide shelter for wildlife and a breeding ground for butterflies, and lets more light through to the surrounding plants that would otherwise be shaded out by a bigger tree. This opens up the possibility of planting bulbs and ground cover plants around the tree.  Pollarding involves pruning to create a single main trunk, with cutting back of higher level stems. If you are growing shrubs for winter stem colour- e.g Cornus, then wait until spring to cut back the stems to the base.

Avoid cutting back all your perennials as they can provide food and shelter for wildlife in the winter. Anyway, many perennials (e.g. Agapanthus and Rudbeckia) have attractive seed heads and so add a little interest to the winter garden. I particularly like to leave the bleached stems of deciduous grasses in Old School Garden.

8. Harvesting

If you have them, these crops should all be ready for harvesting:

  • Beetroot

  • Turnips

  • Parsnips (best left until the weather has been frosty)

  • Brussels sprouts

  • Celery

  • Swedes

  • Cabbages

  • Leeks

9. Watering

Rain or snow might tempt you to think you don’t need to water your plants, but those which are growing underneath large evergreens or the eaves of the house or in other ‘rain shadows’, may become very dry. A lack of water in winter can be the death knell for these plants.

10. Winter projects

The weather may be good enough for you to complete a special project to enhance your garden:

  • Add a few native trees and shrubs into your borders and more exotic plantings

  • Build a compost heap – use old pallets to get the cheapest, most effective and sturdiest result

  • Feed hedgehogs with tinned dog food (but not bread and milk)

  • ‘Create’ a pile of sticks and logs to make a wonderful ‘des res’ for hibernating hedgehogs and the like

  • Make a leaf container out of chicken wire and posts to make leaf mould out of fallen leaves (it normally takes about 1 – 2 years to rot down). Alternatively they can be stored wet in large black plastic sacks pierced with a fork to make holes

  • Dig a wildlife pond

Oh, and finally, stay off frozen grass!!!

Old School Gardener

Iced Roses Anyone?

Volunteers begin the ‘Healing Garden’ at Hellesdon Hospital

To Walter de Grasse

Dear Walter,

Well, what can I say… I see its been 4 months since my last letter. So apart from  giving you profuse apologies for not keeping you up to speed on my garden-related activity, I hope this letter finds you and Ferdy well and looking forward to Christmas.

So what’s been happening? To start with Deborah and I had a great time back in August at the latest instalment in the Aylsham Roman Dig. Though the ‘finds’ might not have been as stunning as the last two years, the excavations revealed more of the pattern of settlement in this fascinating site, which now seems to have been occupied continuously since iron age times, if not earlier. Of particular interest was the new excavation in the walled garden of Woodgate House, which revealed considerable building material and suggests the location of a substantial Roman building (possibly a ‘villa’ or farmstead) nearby. This is nicely set up for next years dig. Deborah is now helping to sort and classify the many new finds of pottery and other material found over the three weeks of the dig. Here is a selection of shots to give you an impression of the (very hot) activities we undertook this year.

You might recall that I’d been involved with creating a show garden at Sandringham Flower show? Well I’m very pleased to say that the plants and other features from this have been substantially relocated into a ‘Healing Garden’ that I’ve designed and helped to create at an admissions ward at our local psychiatric hospital; a selection of staff, service users, carers and other volunteers have helped with this over a two-week period (see picture above), and whilst there are some ‘fixtures and fittings’ to complete, at least the planting has been done before winter sets in. Though it might not look much at present I’m looking forward to seeing it in the spring and onwards into next year as the many spring bulbs and varied planting we’ve put in comes to life. Here are a couple of pictures ‘before and after’ of the entrance to the ward, which gives a good idea of how we’ve taken rather bland, uninteresting areas of grass and, hopefully, added interest. It’s been both challenging and enjoyable working on this as we have to bear in mind a whole lot of risk factors in the design and implementation of such a project.

Very recently I’ve become an Executive Committee member of the newly established Broadland Tree Warden Network, which has gone its own way after many years of being under the wing of the local Council. That support has been very good and it looks like continuing, including money for tree planting. On the latter I’ve been fortunate to secure the purchase of 10 trees to further extend the planting near our local church (for which the Church Action Group won a Norfolk Biodiversity Award). One of these is to replace one of the ornamental pears (Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer’) that didn’t survive the summer drought. The others- a mix of Crab Apples, Hawthorn, Rowan, Cherry, Cornus etc. will add further variety to the local scene as well as helping to make the car park more attractive. Here are some pictures of the new trees in place…with plenty of horses and ponies that now populate the fields surrounding the church (all part of Hillside animal sanctuary). And I must, once again, pay tribute to the Community Payback Team for the great support they’ve given us in both managing the churchyard, but in carrying out works to help improve the local scene more generally (including digging the holes for the new trees!).

Our efforts to secure funding for repairs and improvements to the church itself are also progressing. I’ve submitted grant applications for works to improve accessibility to the church (it will mean, among other things, that the church can remain open during the day rather than being closed, apart from services and events), and another to carry out urgent repairs to some of the stained glass windows. We are also starting to ramp up our activities for next year in order to both provide a wider range of activities and secure local funds to help towards our grander plans. The next one of these is on 9th December- our annual ‘Carols by Candlelight’ service….

My other commitments have meant I’ve not been to Blickling much of late, but did manage to get over for an hour or two of leaf clearing last week, and am looking forward to the Christmas Party there next week. Here are a couple of shots from earlier in the year…

As you might have guessed Old School Garden has been rather short of attention in the light of all of the bove (and other commitments), but at least I’ve begun leaf clearing and tidying in preparation for ‘putting the garden to bed’ until next spring. The Liquidambar is looking especially impressive this year…

I expect to finish clearing out the greenhouse and insulating and putting a heater in there to ensure tender plants (Cannas, etc.) survive the winter.

Well, Christmas approaches and hopefully we can see the conclusion of works to our lounge which began last spring with ceilings being removed and the room being put back close to how it might have looked as a classroom. I’m especially pleased with the new ‘gothic window’ we had installed over the french doors, and this will be receiving a stained glass inner panel next week- see an early picture below. A new wood burner is also going in, so the ‘Chapel of Rest’ as I now call it will be set for Christmas festivities…

Not that we will get much benefit from this in the short term as we are off to Australia to see our eldest daughter, son in law and grand daughter immediately after Christmas and from there will spend 3 weeks touring New Zealand. So, I’m looking forward to exploring a number of botanical gardens and other interesting places, and will try to ‘blog’ about these as we go.

In the immediate future we are off to York today for a couple of days and then to Edinburgh to stay with friends, and in a week or two off to Devon to see mother-in-law for a Christmas visit…so a lot of travel in the next few months…will Old School Garden survive the neglect?

All the best for Christmas and the New Year to to you and yours old friend…

Old School Gardener














Wisterias are wonderful plants, but once established they do have imperialistic tendencies, wreathing and twining their way to cover walls, reach for roofs and wind through windows, so generally it is not considered a suitable plant for small spaces. However, on my recent visit to the Hillier Garden I saw a new technique they are…

via Wisterias for Small Spaces — The Enduring Gardener

We have visited the Piet Oudolf gardens at the Hauser and Wirth Galleries in Bruton, Somerset twice already. We wanted to visit once more to see how these amazing new perennial style gardens had matured. We had to pass between the gallery buildings to reach the gardens but were drawn to these gently planted containers […]

via Hauser and Wirth – a return to Piet Oudolf’s gallery garden — greenbenchramblings

Originally posted on Purplerays: ? ? “And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” ~ William Shakespeare ? ? ? ? ? ~ Image, Fairy Glen Gorge, River Conwy, Wales by Craig McCormick Text & image source: ॐ Simplicity,…

via Sunday reflection . . . . And this, our life, — The English Professor at Large

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