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Saturday, June 15, 2024
GardeningDecember in the Garden

December in the Garden

I think we’ve had a pretty ‘standard’ sort of year, for the UK, weatherwise if not politically. Every year will have periods that, in isolation, seem unusual but these events balance out over time. This autumn was pleasingly dry and warm, compared to some, but not in the way in which it will be remembered for decades to come.

When I think of droughts I automatically go back to 1976, I was a small boy (!), and that hot summer was memorably exceptional and hasn’t been repeated since. There were even bumper stickers produced (whatever happened to them?) with the legend ‘Save Water—Bathe with a Friend’!

As far as one-off events go, then the ’87 hurricane is hard to beat. It was so unusual that, if you were in the SouthEast, then you will definitely remember exactly where you were at the time it struck. I was in Wye, Kent, in ‘Halls’ during my first term of a degree in Horticulture. The copper roof pealed off the student accommodation and landed in the car park – that was pretty memorable.

Of course, I hope that this winter carries on in an unremarkable vein. I’d like a bit of cold, some snow maybe, but nothing that will remain noteworthy for decades to come. A bit of ‘proper cold’ is good for killing off some of the overwintering pests/diseases and also, via frost action, for breaking up a heavy soil. For any frost to really get into the clods of earth, it does rely on my having got around to digging the veg beds before the frosty weather attacks.

As I write this it is definitely too wet to be trampling all over the soil, or attempting to dig it over. From bitter experience, I’ve learnt that a compacted soil, with all the life-giving air squeezed out, is a serious barrier to good plant growth. Always best to leave any earth maintenance activities to periods of dry weather. This may require a little patience in a warm, wet, winter.

It’s the perfect time to order bare-root plants, the most cost-effective and easiest way to obtain a wide variety of trees and shrubs. You can always ‘heel them in’ if the weather isn’t perfect for planting when they arrive by post. I’m constantly amazed when browsing through specialist suppliers of such things, just how diverse the choice can be. I’ve always bought my ‘mixed hedging’ and ‘wood-fuel tree mixtures’ this way but if you are planning a block planting, of willows or Cornus for example, then bare-root is the way to go.

Having a quick look on the website of my usual supplier, ‘Hopes Grove Nurseries’, the first thing I notice is that I could plant a small grove (over 20), 4-5ft tall, bare-root Amelanchiers for under a hundred pounds, including delivery. The ‘Snowy Mespilus’ is one of those large shrubs / small trees which really should be planted everywhere. I don’t think it has a single ‘vice’. It even responds to be treated as a hedge, if the ‘tree option’ won’t fit into your garden.

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 dug up, transported and stuffed into new ground. Having said that I have, on occasion, left it obscenely late to get bare-rooted hedging planted and it’s still romped away in the spring.

I like experimenting in the garden so when I planted my own ‘native’ hedge I added about five species of rose, to the standard mix, for more floral interest, colour and wild-food value. It’s proved a great success and now, if I was planning another hedge, I think I’d be very tempted to populate it with a large number of the more ‘ornamental’ trees and shrubs, available bare-root, as they are so, comparatively, cheap. If some don’t survive the competition or fail to thrive as part of the mix, then it’s not the end of the world. I find, in gardening, it is the unexpected successes that you remember and not the occasional disaster.

Luckily for us, whoever planned the annual explosion of overconsumption that is Christmas, was thoughtful enough to make sure it takes place at perhaps the quietest time in the garden. Perhaps the only garden-related task that you’ll have to do is to choose a present for a gardening relative or think of one that you’d like yourself.

I am extremely fortunate in that I either already possess any gardening tool that I could possibly need or my employers, being practical sorts, have ensured that the garden I work in is equipped with every piece of machinery required for modern horticultural excellence.

This year I have been experimenting with a piece of equipment that I picked up years ago, for about a tenner, from a well-known online auction site. It’s a soil steriliser and probably cost hundreds of pounds new but was being sold, by a horticultural group in the middle of nowhere, because they had no use for it. They hadn’t even been plugged in!

In those days I was privileged to have use of BBC hire cars, at licence fee payers expense, to roar all over the country in the arduous task of looking at lovely gardens before deciding whether we would deign to film them or not. The joy of this was that items listed as ‘Pick Up Only’, which were impossible to post, and with a very limited market, would sell for next to nothing and all I had to do was to combine collection with a ‘recce’ nearby. Bingo! Lovely soil steriliser, minimal cost, very little hassle.

Anyway, this year has been the first in which I’ve been able to make good use of it. I’ve been using it to recycle old compost, after it’s been used to grow tomatoes and the like, mixing it with some garden soil, running it through a ‘Rota-Sieve’ and then ensuring that it’s sterile by a quick blast in the soil steriliser. The resulting ‘compost’ just needs the addition of a base mix of nutrients before being recycled for repotting shrubs/perennials which like to have a bit of loam in their potting mix.

That would be my Christmas present of choice if I didn’t already have one. Failing that ‘Groves’ (still one of the best garden centre nurseries in the UK, I reckon) vouchers can’t go wrong. Happy Christmas one and all.

PS—I am not connected in any way with any product or company mentioned—they really are the places I go to, or products I choose, from my own experience. I cannot guarantee that they are the best out there, just the ones I prefer…

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