December in the Garden

December is not always the most felicitous time to be in the garden; cold, wet and uninviting. But it is a good time to think ahead and get on with those fundamental tasks which will reap dividends in the New Year.

The fact that deciduous shrubs and trees have shed their leaves indicates that they have entered their winter dormancy. This is useful to the gardener as it means that you can perform operations on them which they wouldn’t much like if they were in active growth. Chief amongst these is the lifting of hedging plants as ‘bare-rooted’.

Commercial growers can produce thousands of new plants, usually by the means of vegetative propagation, and grow them on to the point where they are up to eighteen inches tall with a compact root system. As soon as they are dormant they can be dug up and sent all over the country because they can survive without soil as long as the roots are kept moist.

As a gardener the advantage is that you can order plants from the most competitive source even if it is hundreds of miles away and, excluding postage, the price per plant can be as little as fifty pence a piece. This makes most sense if you are planning to plant hundreds of metres of native hedging species, although the range of plants available is much wider than that. Trees, fruit and a range of ornamental species are available too.

The season for obtaining and planting bare-rooted plants is from leaf fall to bud burst. Best not to leave it until the last minute as they certainly prefer to have a little winter rest, post replanting, rather than getting a rude spring awakening immediately after the trauma of being stuffed into new ground. Having said that, I have, on occasion, left it obscenely late to plant bare-rooted hedging plants and they’ve still romped away in the spring.

The main thing to watch for is that the roots never get a chance to dry out. Any reputable nursery will dispatch your precious plants with their damp, naked, roots modestly sealed in plastic bags, sometimes with a moist substrate added for extra insurance. It is your duty to unpack them immediately upon delivery, soak their roots if necessary, and then ‘heel them in’ to a spare area of garden if you are not able to plant them straight away.

The planting of small hedging plants could not be simpler. For best results the line of the hedge, where the new plants are going to be planted, should be stripped of turf and perennial weeds, for its entire length, to a width of approximately one metre. This will give you plenty of room in which to work and will facilitate a double, staggered, row of small hedging plants, each one spaced about twenty inches from its neighbour.

A double row, with just over a foot between rows, will provide a thicker, stock-proof, hedge more quickly than a single row but will use a few more plants to cover the same distance. If you have metres and metres of hedging to get in, the most basic and brutal planting technique usually suffices. Simply make a slit into the ground with a sharp spade, waggle it to and fro, to enlarge the slit, and then pull back on the spade to hold the soil open while you pop your plant in. Extract the spade, leaving the hedging plant behind, and firm the soil around it with your heel. The whole process should take no more than a few seconds and you quickly pick up a rhythm as you progress along the row.

Some aftercare is necessary if they are to get off to a good start. Keeping the base of the hedge as weed free as possible will ensure that the small plants do not have to compete with grass and perennial weeds for water and nutrients. They quickly produce new roots so that they are able to support their newly emerging leaves in spring. If their first growing season is unusually dry then supplementary watering may be necessary if you are to avoid losses. In a normal season they should be able to grow roots at a fast enough pace to keep up with the transpiration demands of their new leaves.

As I write this we’ve just come out of a period of very wet and windy weather which has prevented many gardening tasks from being attempted. Unless you have very free-draining, clay free, soil then common winter tasks, like digging, are out of the question as mechanical interventions will cause more harm than good on sodden soil. Even walking on wet soil is bad as it compacts it, squeezing the air out as the structure is destroyed. Roots need to breathe so airless, anaerobic, soils will kill the plants attempting to grow in them. Heavy soils can be improved, over time, by deeply digging in coarse grit, to aid drainage, and organic matter to loosen up the structure.

As ever I am hoping for a properly chilly, if not white, Christmas to really put the garden to sleep and cleanse it of as many over-wintering pests as possible. On that note I shall wish you a suitably ‘pest-free’ Festive Season and New Year!