It seems like a pretty standard descent into winter so far. It’s easy to forget that the newly bare stems will remain that way for almost six months because it is well into May before the leaf canopy is fully reinstated. A lot of weather can happen between now and then – remember the ‘big freeze’ last winter – so invest in some horticultural fleece and keep it on standby.
Dubiously hardy specimens that are too large to bring under cover, or are planted in the ground rather than in pots, might just make it through given a wrap of fleece. As ever, improving soil drainage with gravel and keeping the rain off (easier said than done) will guard against death by winter wet. In my own garden the most important borderline tender plants which I need to get through the winter, because they behave like biennials, are bushy Echiums. Having grown them from seedlings, given to me by a gardening friend, I really want them to reach flowering size so that I can then collect seeds of my own after their flowering finale next summer.
There’s not a lot in the way of propagating that you can successfully undertake at this time of year, but hardwood cuttings are an exception. Ribes (currants), Cornus (dogwoods), Rosa (roses), Spiraea and deciduous Viburnums are all possible candidates but it’s worth experimenting with anything deciduous. The most straightforward method is simply to cut a good length, at least a foot, of recently grown twig or stem. Make a sloping cut above a bud at the tip end and a flat cut below a bud at the base end. Insert this cutting into forked over soil in a sheltered spot in the garden so that only the top couple of inches, or three buds, are above ground level.
The location should be somewhere where the cuttings will remain undisturbed and exposed to as few extremes of light and temperature as possible. The reason for burying them so deep, and for having such a good length of stem, is that they have to have enough ‘oomph’ about them to survive a long dormant season and still have some stored energy left to start rooting as soon as conditions allow. If no sheltered spot is available then making a cuttings bed inside the protection of a coldframe will improve success rates. Keep an eye on how they’re doing as drying out is the major cause of failure – remember that when they break dormancy in the spring they may not have actually grown any roots!
Check the cuttings after periods of frosty weather because the freeze / thaw action may heave the rootless twigs out of the ground. Simply firm them back in if the soil in the cuttings bed has become loosened. Elsewhere in the garden this fracturing action actually helps to break down large clods of earth left over from rough digging. If you have any ground which is currently vacant roughly digging it over during dry weather, adding a decent amount of organic matter as necessary, will allow you to take maximum advantage of this helpful frost action.
Some less helpful aspects of freezing weather are fractured ponds where the rigid liner is split by solid ice forming and burst pipes to outside taps. The former can be avoided by floating deformable objects in the pond, I find lumps of wood have just enough ‘give’ in them, and the latter is prevented by draining down the pipe, where possible, or lagging with plenty of bubblewrap, fixed over the tap and exposed pipe, if draining is not feasible. It’s worth remembering to avoid walking on frosted lawns as there is a danger that the grass beneath the compacted frost will die and you’ll be left with semi-permanent footprints across your lawn.
Fortunately Santa will not be leaving footprints across your lawn as he, as everyone knows, comes down the chimney. In this new era of austerity I think it would be a real false economy to neglect your garden. Your major expense should be time, not money, as the more you grow yourself, rather than buying ‘instant’ plants, the more money you will save. With this in mind I guess the best Christmas presents have to be propagating tools, seeds and a sharp cuttings knife. Compliments of the season to one and all…