December in the garden

I can't resist – ho, ho, ho! There..  I promise, it's out of my system.

Christmas is racing ever closer and December is a prime time to pull an inventory together of everything you need for the coming year. A secateur sharpener, a greenhouse heater, welly socks – all on my list at the moment. But it isn't all retail this month as a few hours of daylight in the garden is the perfect antidote to wandering in shopping centres or hours slumped in front of a computer screen, recovering from a very Black Friday.

However quiet it may seem in the garden you can rest assured that you are not alone. Birds still eat over winter and we can help out by ensuring the correct seed mix is in plentiful supply and that fresh water is available. OK, the squirrels will have a nibble and pigeons may try to scoff the lot, but robins, blue tits and sparrows will all enjoy their fair share.

Many plants are still growing (including the weeds which may need hoe-ing off – I'm trying, honest) but December can be a little bit soggy, and then frozen. So keep off the soil if it sticks to your boots and if the lawn is white with frost avoid walking on it. Both activities will cause damage.

Otherwise enjoy the relative calm of December, plan the year ahead for your veg plot and whole garden and make sure your Christmas list is up to date and with Santa before the last week of the month.

Planting/ preparing/maintenance for December.

Digging splits the gardening population. Some love to dig, others say no-dig is best and favour layering on organic matter onto the soil surface and letting nature do its work. Me? I'm a digger. I get the argument against it but there is something deeply satisfying about turning over soil, handpicking weeds and deep roots and getting in physical contact with the very stuff that will support luscious growth. The local robin likes it as well as we team up, him at my side, waiting for a worm or five!

I don't say dig when it's wet as this will damage the soil structure, crushing the air out of the soil and destroying the structure, but when it is dry, frost is forecast but not actually on the ground and I feel like raising the hear rate, digging is my thing. Leave the clods of soil large and the frost and winter will gently break them down. Come next spring, all you will need to do is a light rake over and hey presto, crumbly tilth ready for seeds and seedlings.

But when it is raining and digging is a no-no, sort seeds according to the sowing dates. File them in a cardboard box in a cool, dry place (away from garages and any mice) so that you don't miss the sowing dates. Any other spare moment can be used to check your stored fruit and veg is doing OK and that nothing is rotting. Same thing goes for any dahlia tubers in store – cut out any soft patches to prevent rots from spreading.

Hints and tips for the colder months

  • Walking on deep frozen lawns will damage the grass. So don't do it!
  • Draw up a plan of your veg plot, laminate it and stick on the back of the shed door.
  • Weeds grow in warmer weather in winter so keep them under control.
  • Wash all dirt and algae off greenhouse windows to make the use of the precious light.
  • Dig the soil, remove all weeds and their otts and expose bugs to the grateful birds.

Key jobs for December

  • Plan.
  • Check crops in store.
  • Clean tools and greenhouses.
  • Dig bare soil.



Q: How can I use an old, dead, cut Christmas tree in the garden?

A: You can put it through a shredder and use the resultant shreddings as a mulch around all acid condition loving plants such as camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas. This works for both plants in the ground and those growing in pots. Or check out your local council recycling centres and they may compost them (and then sell back the compost to you later next year!)

Q: I bought a Poinsettia from outside a supermarket and it died within a week. What have I done wrong?
A: The simple answer is you bought it from outside! Poinsettias are native to Mexico and want warmer conditions than your average high street in the UK can offer. Only buy from indoor displays that are away from cold draughts. Wrap it up in the shop and get it quickly into a car or transport. Rush it indoors and mollycoddle it until it adapts to your lounge or bedroom. They can be kept growing all year – but let's ease it through Christmas and the New Year first.

Q: What's the best heating for a greenhouse?

A: It all depends on budget and ease of getting to the greenhouse. Electricity is controllable and efficient but obviously needs professional installation to make it safe and certificated. Paraffin is old school - personally I love the smell but if the wick isn't perfect can cover plants in black soot. Gas is great, again keep an eye on safety at all times, but a canister in smaller greenhouses can be obtrusive. I think electricity is the best if budgets allow and everything is super safe, and it ticks all the regulation boxes.

Events and shows in December

A lot of stately homes with glorious gardens hold Christmas shows and markets. On bright afternoons, it's a great way to see how a structure of garden works. Keep a look out for any gardens with glasshouses as they may have early bulbs in flower, and many alpines do their thing in the colder, darker months. The RHS gardens always have something to admire even on the bleakest of winter days.

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