It certainly seems as if it’s done nothing but rain, for most of the autumn, which may have delayed some of the gardening activities which you’d like to have completed by now. While the ground is waterlogged, it does more harm than good to trample all over flower beds but, as soon as there is a break in the weather, without it being frozen solid, then completing digging and tidying tasks can go ahead.
Once we start getting frosts then lifting and dividing herbaceous perennials becomes a little more dicey and moving evergreen specimens really should be halted. In mild spells it’s worth getting on with planting bare-rooted trees, shrubs and hedging plants but, frustrating though it is, even this cannot be attempted during the wettest weather.
I am not generally in a rush to apply organic mulches in the garden because I like the, old-fashioned, idea that it’s a good idea to let the cold and the frost get to the soil. The expanding action of freezing water, inside clods of earth, has the ability to break up the lumps, thus saving you some effort. Also, so the theory goes, a decent spell of freezing temperatures will kill off a proportion of the pests which overwinter at the soil surface.
Logic tells me that it will similarly kill off a fair proportion of the beneficial insects as well, so whether a cold winter actually reduces the degree of pest damage, in the subsequent growing year, is a moot point. Gardening is all about maintaining a balance between untamed nature and the degree of human intervention required to achieve the (unnatural) effects that a cultivated garden demands; the balance between pests and diseases is something which it is often best left to natural control.
With the leaves now off the trees, the deciduous ones at least, the risk of high winds bringing them down is reduced. Having said that, if you’ve not done it already, it’s a good idea to check tree stakes and ties. They should be tight enough to hold the tree firmly, without chafing, but not so tight as to constrict the growth of the trunk. There should be a rubber block, located between the stake (always placed on the side of the tree from which the prevailing wind comes) and the trunk, through which the tie passes. The stake should be cut off an inch or so above the tie so that if the tree does sway towards the stake it cannot rub against the length stake protruding above the attachment point. To stop the tie from moving down the stake, during the inevitable flexing, I find a flat-headed roofing nail, hammered though the tie and into the stake, holds it nicely at the correct height on the stake.
The subject of tree staking brings me neatly to my annual reminder that the dormant season is the horticultural window of opportunity for buying and planting bare-rooted material. As mentioned in previous articles, the advantages of obtaining garden plants in their bare-root form is their comparative cheapness, compared to pot grown examples, and the fact that they are able to be sent from far-flung nurseries, a real boon now that so much is acquired via the ‘www’.
The major caveat, when ordering plants bare-root, is that you have to be prepared to deal with them as soon as they are delivered. Make sure you make a note of the advised delivery date and check with the supplier if you are in any doubt. They should be sent in protective packaging designed to keep them alive for the time that they are ‘in transit’ but they cannot be left in an outbuilding, or with a neighbour, once delivered, for more than a day or so. Even if weather conditions do not allow them to be planted immediately they will still need to be removed from their packaging and either heeled in, in a vacant bed, or temporarily potted up, crammed into a large pot of compost, until you can plant them in their permanent positions.
This being the ‘festive season’, you might have other things on your mind rather than going outdoors and getting muddy. If you are considering gifts for gardeners then bare-rooted plants might be a bit of a risk but other horticultural goodies will fit into a Christmas stocking.
Gardening consumables always come in handy and, unlike a glut of scented pressies, will always get used eventually. Decent, three-ply, twine is an essential that it’s impossible to have too much of. If your budget cannot stretch to the tool itself, Japanese secateurs and pruning tools being all the rage, then a sharpening stone or steel is a useful bit of kit. They are essential for getting the most out of your existing bladed tools so having a spare one, or three, is not excessive considering how easy they are to mislay.
Apart from impulse type buys from garden centres, an array of hellebores, snowdrops in pots and the like, a more longterm option could be a topiary evergreen which, like dahlias, seem to be having something of a renaissance due to their Instagram appeal. Large specimens will be expensive, due to the time it takes to grow them, but smaller examples, especially if untrained, might suit a smaller budget. Of course, it’s no coincidence that niche pruning tools are gaining in popularity at the same time that photogenic topiary is having a resurgence…