Tag Archive: december


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

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‘Carry, & spread dung & compost.’

John Evelyn 1686 (published 1932)

Old School Gardener

IMG_9045

Old School Garden- 31st December 2014

To Walter Degrasse

Dear Walter,

It was great seeing you and Lise just before Christmas, and thanks for the Christmas card, which was a pleasant surprise! I was grateful for your advice about the raspberries, too; I shall be looking out for some new saplings to plug the gaps and hope for a more consistent crop next year.

The mild weather we had just before Christmas has now been replaced by rather colder, though mixed conditions. It’s been quite frosty here in the last few days; I’m glad that I managed, earlier in the month, to get the greenhouse insulated and heated and the tender plants inside.

Apart from that, it’ s been a relatively quiet time doing the usual winter chores; leaf collecting, mole hill clearing (don’t they ever pack up their tunneling?) and tidying away spent stems and foliage where these have flopped or offer nothing to wildlife or the winter garden.

The colourful stems of the Dogwoods are now looking good, as are the Mahonia and (surprisingly) flowers on some of the Viburnums- a hang over from the mild autumn, I guess. We’ve also got some winter and spring colour in pots on the Terrace.

I pulled my (small) crop of parsnips just before Christmas and we’ve been enjoying these over the holiday – the harvest was pretty good, though I noticed a couple of the roots had been eaten out  (I had this problem last year), and one or two of the biggest specimens were a little woody inside. Still they were very tasty!

I did manage to clear one mixed border and replant this using the remaining Box balls from the Terrace planters. You recall seeing these? I had three large balls left after removing three that had Box Blight. The remainders were getting a bit too large for the planters anyway.

The balls now form a neat row that reflects the three large pots we have at the other end of the terrace lawn, and I’ve planted around them with a mix of Allium bulbs and some of the plugs of Canterbury Bells I grew on earlier in the year. I’ve also rearranged the selection of other herbaceous plants that were in this bed and – hopefully – removed all of the Ground Elder and Periwinkle that between them were making the bed a nightmare to keep tidy.

The replanted mixed border with Box Balls- with a frosty sheen!

The replanted mixed border with Box Balls- with a frosty sheen!

You remember I told you that the local Vicar had asked me to produce a Management Plan for the churchyard? Well Deborah and I went over earlier in the month and measured up to see what scale the ground plan he’d given me was; luckily it was almost exactly 1:100, so that meant the transfer of information was a straightforward tracing job- it would have been a real hassle if I’d have had to scale off and position every grave and stone! Well, the base plan is done and I’m now thinking about the design and Management Plan. I think this will involve some selective cutting down and cutting back of some of the trees around (and in) the churchyard to allow more light and space, and the gradual cultivation of a wildflower meadow environment across much of the rest of the site- but keeping more recent graves clear and ensuring some mown paths to allow access. As it’s management will almost entirely depend on voluntary labour I’ll need to keep things relatively simple, but perhaps there is limited scope for introducing some greater plant interest in one or two spots.

As you know, Deborah retired from teaching at the local Primary school this year and I took the opportunity of ending my school gardening work there too, especially as they had achieved ‘5 Star’ status with the RHS and are now getting regular advice and input from the RHS Regional Coordinator. However, at our recent Christmas Party the Teacher who coordinates ‘Outdoor Learning’ asked me to prepare a specification for maintenance of the grounds and also to help her prepare some design proposals for the playground, where there are ambitions to get more play and educational value from the space. I’m pleased about helping with both of these issues, as I’ve felt for some time a different, more considered approach to the grounds is needed, including one that is more wildlife-friendly, and also to take into account the maintenance needs of areas that I’ve helped to plant up over the years.

This ‘Desk work’ will be a nice project for the winter months, but I’m also excited about starting to garden at nearby Blickling Hall, where the National Trust is embarking on a project to regenerate its two acre Walled Garden as well as maintaining the extensive and varied gardens in this beautiful place. I met the Head Gardener and Project Manager a few weeks ago and had a tour of the site and explanation of their plans, which are about to kick off with new paths and irrigation systems being installed. I’ve agreed to begin work with them next week, so I’ll probably keep you up to date on this through future letters and other posts.

 Oh, and just to finish off, a bit of news about Old School Garden (the blog, that is). As you know I’ve been producing this for two years  and I recently had an annual review from the publishers, WordPress. So I thought I’d share a few key findings with you:

  • During 2014 the blog had around 130,00 hits or page views.

  • The most popular topic was recycling in the garden, especially projects using old pallets!

  • The best day for hits was 15th September with nearly 15,000 views.

  • 82% of those viewing the site live in the USA, UK and Canada

  • I now have 2647 followers, including all those via Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook etc.

I’m especially grateful to all those who took the time to comment or ‘like’ my posts. I wish you and them a successful 2015 and look forward to another productive year in Old School Garden- both blog and plot!

All the best for now,

Old School Gardener

Molehills seem to be springing up at a rate of knots in Old School Garden!
Molehills seem to be springing up at a rate of knots in Old School Garden!

Letter from Old School Garden 23rd December 2013

Dear Walter,

As I write this a major storm is sweeping across the country,disrupting travel, cutting power from homes and maybe even bringing further local flooding. I hope that you aren’t in danger from this.Fortunately we seem to be missing the worst of it, but nevetheless the winds are ferocious and I’m wondering if we can complete out planned Christmas family gathering later today, as I’m due to collect my eldest daughter and her boy friend from Norwich Station. Let’s hope they are able to get a train before the cancellations set it in at 5pm.

Setting the current ‘excitement’ aside, it’s been a pretty quiet time here at Old School Garden in recent weeks. I’ve been collecting Physalis fruit, Rose hips and Crab apples (‘Red Sentinel’) for festive decorations and rather good they look too. The other day I was pleased to discover that my local nursery had its supply of seed potatoes in, so rather than wait and possibly miss out on my favourite variety (‘Charlotte’), I bought a bag of these and one of Maris Bard (second and first earlies respectively). Once Christmas is over I’ll be setting these out on trays to ‘chit’ (sprout).

Festive Decoration- Physalis
Festive Decoration- Physalis

We’ve also had some new french doors fitted and I managed to grab the old glazed doors which I hope to use for cloches to warm the soil/protect tender crops in the new season. I really haven’t done as much as I’d hoped in the garden this past few weeks. As I said last month, the weather has been quite mild so I should have taken advantage of this to move things around, but all I’ve managed to do is extend a border and moved a few perennials to here and one or two other places. I still have some larger clumps of Achillea and Echinops to split and move.

I’ve just about managed to keep on top of leaf collection, but have noticed how the grass has kept growing, so at some point I shall have to venture out with the mower to keep it to a reasonable height. Having said this, mole hills seem to appear almost as I’m clearing the old ones away!

The last month has seen some gorgeous autumn colour- the Euphorbia palustris was especially brilliant, and I’m looking forward to seeing the various groups of Dogwoods as their bright stems liven up the winter garden.

Red Sentinel crab apples
Red Sentinel crab apples

The greenhouse is now fully set up with electric heater, insulation and tender plants all in- though I’ve still to get the Dahlias properly potted up for winter. I’ve ordered some flower seeds and these have arrived. I’ve gone for few more exotic- looking varieties of flowers this year and also some extras which I’ll use for an extended ornamental area in kitchen garden. I’ll turn to more detailed planning of these areas and my propagation schedule in the next week or two. I’ve also re-potted some house plants and I’m trying to care for these a little better, by thinking about their placement and trying not to over water them!

On the wider front, I’ve been approached by a Norfolk High School about tutoring a group of students on the School gardening plot, probably for a couple of sessions a week.This sounds interesting and something I’m keen to do, so will be visiting the School garden in early January to discuss plans in more detail. Meanwhile, I’ve continued to help at my local primary school. The mild weather has meant that we managed to plant out some leek ‘survivors’ from a sowing earlier in the year- hopefully it will remain mild enough for them to get settled. The children have also been busy collecting a lot of leaves for leaf mould. I’ll probably be back with them after February half term to get on with some seed sowing, amongst other things

Rose hips
Rose hips

I’ve also heard that I may have a new garden design commission in the New Year and I’ve agreed to meet up with the Head Gardener at nearby Salle Park Gardens to discuss her plans for turning over a portion of their 2 acre walled garden to ornamental rather than food production ( a bit like my own plans but on a much larger scale!).

As I mentioned last month my courses in Garden Design and Grow Your Own Food seem to have been successful and I’m hoping that we can run another set beginning in February, though once more subject to numbers of course.

Well, old friend I hope that you and Lise are safe in this rough weather and that you have a wonderful Christmas time with your family, tucked up in that lovely old house of yours. All the best to you and them at this special time and here’s to a productive gardening year in 2014!

Old School Gardener

out-of-focus-christmas-lightsDecember Day

‘This shortest day of all the year was born

When fiery cloud-banks filled the eastern sky.

Concealed in grey since that belated dawn

The sun remains, and all around rise high

The latticed traceries of sleeping trees.

Beneath them now the woodland wanderer sees

So little living, little colour too,

For winter’s dull, damp blanket hides from view

The fallen glory of the year grown old,

And future beauty waiting to unfold.

And so to Christmas, festival of light,

When families in joy and hope unite,

To celebrate the birthday all remember,

Bringing a blaze of brightness to December.’

Jack (John) Kett

from ‘A Late Lark Singing’  (Minerva Press, 1997)

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