From pruning to planting, from collecting leaves to nursing houseplants, the cold certainly doesn’t mean an end to all things great and green!
December is a reflective time in the garden, and we can take notes from nature as plants shed their leaves in preparation for another year of growth.
Resist the urge to start hacking everything back and tidying! Insects will hibernate in hollow stems and under fallen leaves. Some plants such as Melianthus major, Tetrapanax papyrifer, Salvia ‘Amistad’ and Verbena bonariensis will protest being cut back too hard at this time of year and may perish if it is a particularly cold and wet winter. Interest throughout winter is achieved as frost creeps over the skeletons of seed heads and old herbaceous stems.
If you do collect leaves from lawns or pathways, you can bag them up and store them until they become fine crumbly leaf mould. For the gardener, this is worth its weight in gold. It can greatly improve soil water retention and add a whole host of beneficial bacteria and fungi to the soil. Worms love it too and will draw it down, creating drainage channels as they go. If you are collecting tonnes of leaves then build a leaf ‘cage’ using wooden posts and chicken wire. After a year you will have gorgeous material to mix into potting compost or use as a mulch. It’s especially good for woodland plants. Nothing in the natural world is wasted, it is all recycled to create and sustain life.
You might not necessarily think of December for planting, but winter is the perfect time to plant bare rooted trees, roses and other deciduous shrubs. This is a cost-effective way to buy plants and they will often establish quicker than pot grown plants. Soak your plant’s roots in a bucket of water a few hours before planting and spread the roots out in the planting hole to give it the best stable position. A square planting hole is best as the roots will break and divide when they hit a hard edge, rather than going round and round a circular hole and potentially becoming rootbound. Remember to water your plant in, even if the soil is damp and provide a stake for tall trees to prevent wind rock.
If you have established trees and shrubs in the garden now is a suitable time to carry out pruning, whilst they are dormant. This is especially true for trees and shrubs that are prone to bleeding such as Cherry, Maple, and Birch. Prune out anything that is dead, diseased, crossed, or rubbing. Why not bring cut branches indoors to make attractive festive displays and attach handmade decorations made from pinecones, berries, seed heads and other foraged materials?
Don’t forget to feed our feathered friends over winter. High fat suet or peanuts will help them get through the coldest months. Here we have all manner of visitors including woodpeckers and parakeets! The parakeets in particular are a joy to watch and add a tropical flash of green to the December garden. Leave out fresh water too and make sure to break any ice so that they can drink and bathe. Encouraging birds into the garden helps to keep down pest numbers and they will forage amongst your plants for hibernating bugs.
Naturally, we will be spending more time indoors at this time of year and so our houseplants can give us the green boost we need. Make sure to wipe leaves to keep them dust free, check for signs of pests which can flourish as the central heating comes on and move your plants as close to the window as possible as the light levels drop. Reduce watering as active growth slows down to prevent root rot. Resist the urge to water every time you pass by and never let your plants stand in water. You may have to mist your plants twice daily to increase humidity, especially when the heating comes on.
During December the days may be shorter, but the garden never really goes to sleep. You may even see early signs of spring with daffodil tips visible just above ground and hellebore flowers emerging. Slow your pace and you will notice tiny delights that make bracing the cold winds worthwhile.
There’s always a little winter magic awaiting everyone in nature.