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Monday, July 15, 2024
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GardeningDecember in the Garden

December in the Garden

Of all the months of the year, December is probably the one when there is a good chance that you will do no gardening at all, unless you are either mad keen or own a large and complex garden. The festive season provides enough distractions that garden maintenance is likely to be low on your list of priorities—quite right too!
Fortunately, in the northern hemisphere at least, Christmas falls just after the shortest day of the year when plants are at their lowest ebb and there isn’t anything, maintenance-wise, that’s extremely time-critical. If all the enforced jollity is proving too much for you, and you want to escape into the garden for a bit of horticultural relief, then the absence of leaves, from everything deciduous, plus the lack of herbaceous froth, given that they have now died down, will have exposed the bare bones of the garden.
This gives you the opportunity for a spell of ‘fine tuning’ when it comes to pruning and thinning the kind of shrubs which are often overlooked until they become so large and congested that they present such a daunting pruning task that they get cut down and removed completely. Jumping in and doing some judicious thinning of the bare stems, before they get totally out of hand, is the kind of gardening task which needs to be done slowly and thoughtfully—hence it’s the kind of thing which gets overlooked during the busier times of the gardening year.
On a fine, dry, December day it’s very therapeutic to have a go at assessing the leafless shrubs in your garden and deciding whether they would benefit from having a few of the oldest stems removed. Cutting the oldest, least productive, stems right back to the ground will help to reinvigorate the plant, encouraging new growth to erupt from the base, and keeps an ageing shrub on its toes. The kind of shrubs that spring to mind as being likely candidates are genera like Philadelphus (‘Mock Orange’), Deutzia, Weigela (commonly called ‘Weigelia’), Spiraea (another genus whose common name, ‘Spirea’, is a misspelling) and many Viburnum species.
I find this kind of garden ‘fine tuning’ to be a fairly mindful activity because it cannot be done quickly or thoughtlessly, unlike many more routine gardening tasks, and requires a large amount of standing back and looking at the specimen in question and what is around it. In this way it has parallels with the acknowledged art-form which is the creation and maintenance of bonsai, although on a more ‘real life’ scale.
When a shrub has become congested, so that it is a tangle of old and new growth, it loses a certain amount of charm and grace. At this point, especially if you are in a hurry, it is likely to be kept within bounds by a quick going over with a hedge trimmer, or shears, so that it morphs into a twiggy ‘blob’ rather than a natural-looking plant. The purpose of a winter thinning is to remove a lot of the material which is making the shrub look too dense while leaving the newest, most intact, stems arising from near to the base. This takes time and careful analysis of what is in front of you, hence tackling it at a slack period of the growing cycle, because you need to edit the specimen in your mind’s eye before you actually begin cutting stuff out.
The aim, as with so much in gardening, is to try and achieve the pretence that the plant is growing free and wild, maintaining a semblance of the shape it would have if growing unfettered in nature, while actually bending the specimen to the will of the gardener. If a shrub naturally grows with arching stems smothered in flowers, but would, in reality, grow too large for your garden, then pruning it to keep it within the garden scale should still be done in a manner which retains the natural form – hence the similarity with the Art of bonsai!
There may be a way, methinks, of linking this activity with the Festive Season and the giving/receiving of gifts: this kind of intricate pruning is greatly aided by having the right tools, the kind of tools which are a bit of an indulgence, rather than a necessity, and hence may be nice to receive in one’s Christmas stocking.
I find that the most useful pruning saw for this kind of job is a tiny, high quality, folding saw which is razor-sharp but has a blade small and short enough to really get into the base of an old shrub. A standard pruning saw cannot squeeze in between tightly packed stems very low down, where ideally you should be removing them, which is what leads them to being severed higher up, which looks ugly and unnatural. I bought mine, quite a few years ago (it’s still sharp!), from ‘Axminster Tools’, as an impulse purchase. I’ve just checked their website and they stock it (it’s the 120mm size) for a not unreasonable £18.98 incl. VAT.
The other cutting tool which is a real indulgence but which I’ve found to be completely indispensable, over the past year or so, is my ‘Stihl GTA 26 battery pruner’—commonly referred to as a ‘mini chainsaw’. I originally purchased it because I’m getting to the age where my hands don’t quite have the resilience that they used to so lots of strenuous sawing and cutting, with ‘standard’ hand tools, would leave me with painful joints, removing some of the joy from gardening. The ‘battery pruner’ is small enough to get into the kind of tight spots which even the tiniest full-size chainsaw could not get close to and is also light enough to use in places where trying to wield a heavier machine would be too dangerous.
Having said that, it is only tiny so cutting huge branches is out of the question, it’s not designed to fell trees(!), but I am constantly amazed by just how tenacious it is. Investing in a second chain, to have a sharp one always at hand, and a second battery, so that you can have one in use and one on charge, would extend its usefulness but would add even more to its starting price of around £135 incl. VAT.
I bought mine online but I did notice, last time I was having my petrol chainsaw serviced, that ‘Fowlers’ in Bridport were selling the ‘GTA 26’ and buying from a Stihl dealer guarantees that you are getting the genuine article because I read, after I’d acquired mine, that there are various ‘lookalike’ versions being sold, obviously cheaper, by rogue traders: caveat emptor and all that.
I should point out that I have no connection with any of the suppliers or manufacturers mentioned in this article and that the opinions are my own and are not based on exhaustive research of everything that’s available out there—for that kind of advice you need to subscribe to ‘Which?’, published by the ‘Consumers’ Association’, where I first trained, as a ‘Researcher / Writer’, getting on for thirty years ago—doesn’t time fly!!!
On that note, patient reader, I wish you a happy and restful season of jollity 🙂

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