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Monday, July 15, 2024
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GardeningDecember in the Garden

December in the Garden

A recent acquisition of a new, old, bookcase has afforded me the opportunity to dig out some of my old gardening books. Having been forced to perform an emergency, spine re-glueing operation, on a small, green, volume—I couldn’t resist perusing the last chapter :-
“December—This month is a perfect blank, both for the flower and the fruit garden; except for collecting soils, making composts, preparing labels for names or numbers, sticks or stakes for tying up plants, nails and list for fastening them; and, in mild weather, for pruning the larger and more hardy deciduous trees and shrubs, &c.” : ‘Plain Instructions in Gardening; a calendar of operations and directions for every month in the year’, by Mrs. Loudon (1874).
This comparatively tiny book is dedicated to ‘J C Loudon, esq., by his affectionate widow’… and herein lies a tale.
Mr. Loudon was the leading gardening author, publisher and promoter of his day and Mrs. Loudon does explain that it is her husband to whom she “owes all the knowledge of the subject she possesses”. What she omits to mention is that she was already a published author, albeit anonymously, of an ahead of its time (1827) science fiction novel; ‘The Mummy!: or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century’.
Although an established writer, as well as the founder of the first gardening magazine, John Claudius Loudon died ‘in poverty’, no doubt having overstretched himself in all his numerous endeavours… Jane had been in this position before.
She first escaped penury, orphaned at the age of 17, by anonymously publishing that ground-breaking first novel. Jane had already swapped ‘Fiction’ for ‘Fact’, before the death of her husband when she was just 36, but her gardening books, aimed at a new, niche audience, must have been a real salvation for her. I think it is interesting to note that, unlike her original ‘Science Fiction’ book, Jane Loudon was able to publish her gardening titles under her own name—that was pretty pioneering and a sign of just how much times had changed since Queen Victoria took to the throne.
I’m sorry if that is a bit of a diversion away from more practical horticultural matters. I must admit that I’ve been struggling myself, a bit, with gardening lately, or rather the actual getting out of the house to do anything useful. Sometimes “a change is as good as a rest”, so spending time re-reading old books, as well as seeking out new inspiration, may be time well spent at this time of year when the garden is at its lowest ebb.
When conditions allow and getting out into the beds and borders will not lead to soil compaction or a muddy mess, this month does lend itself to a certain amount of getting ahead of the game. In the past, it was generally accepted that all herbaceous plants would be completely cut down by now, to just above ground level, and the shrubs and trees left in splendid isolation. One advantage of this is that it removes a lot of the hiding places that pests and diseases are able to survive the winter in—and that is still valid—but the general consensus these days is that it’s more ‘wildlife friendly’ to leave old stems and leaves in situ right up until spring is about to be sprung.
As with most things in life, there is a balance to be found and whether you are a complete ‘bare earth’ gardener, or a ‘relaxed messiness’ practitioner, depends on what you are growing and the kind of garden you have. A very formal garden, with well-kept lawns, clipped evergreens and strong structure, could be somewhat ‘let down’ by masses of brown herbaceous detritus and unruly stems diluting the ordered formality.
On the other hand, a garden with more ‘naturalistic’ aims would be a little pointless if the nature-friendly potential of the plantings is negated by a complete removal of all plant material for at least three months of the year. If your garden is large enough then the usual received wisdom, sometimes sticking to convention has its advantages, is to have your neat formal areas close to the house (no-one wants an unsightly ‘outside room’) and to graduate to a more relaxed, flowing, style in the more outlying areas.
Of course, if all else fails, then December is a good month to consider your garden and start making plans if you intend to make changes to its design and planting for the year ahead. The good news here is that if you want to impose more structure in your garden, in the form of a hedge or avenue of trees, then it’s bare-root planting season. As long as the ground isn’t frozen or waterlogged, obtaining trees and shrubs in their bare-root state is the most cost-effective means of obtaining them in quantity. Also, due to being soil and pot-less, they are able to be sent by post or courier so an internet search should yield any number of nurseries to provide whatever it is that takes your fancy.
I spotted recently, along a quiet local lane, a hedge consisting largely of ‘Snowberry’ (Symphoricarous albus) which was particularly stunning this year because the good summer had ensured that every stem was adorned with a cluster of fat, gobstopper-sized, berries. It was looking positively festive as if miniature snowballs had been artfully affixed along its length. It may not be so bountiful if trimmed in a more formal manner but, when allowed to keep its extension growth until late winter, it should provide a welcome bejewelling from leaf-fall until the birds consume its bounty.
As a shrub it’s a bit of a dullard, and horribly out of fashion, but the sight of all those little snowballs, bouncing along the lane, took me right back to my Primary School and the alluring white berries that caught my imagination, as a five-year-old, in what was left of the school garden. I think I might order a dozen bare-root specimens and weave them into my existing mixed hedge……….Happy Christmas to me!!!

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