The December Garden
My books tell me that on sunny days gardening in December can be a pleasant experience which is true but as I look out today in the early afternoon all I can see is a much more gloomy prospect! So I suppose the advice is to choose the best days for getting outside and spend the rest looking out from within and engage in planning and preparing for next year. I will come to the December ‘jobs’ in good time but in this first section I am more concerned with the interesting, attractive and eye-catching features of the December garden because they do exist even though you might have to search them out. As a whole the December garden can and often does look a bit untidy and neglected as some plants die down in a less than graceful way. You will know that for much of the year I have been singing the praises of Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ but even I have to admit that at this time of year it looks like a large, brown mess! For me the beauty in the December garden and the winter garden in general is the detail- the single flower, the seed heads covered in frost, the buds giving a glimpse of what is to come, the outlines of twigs against the sky. In the November blog I discussed some of the plants which can provide interest in the winter garden and what follows are some of the ‘small’ delights to be found in our garden as we enter the first of our winter months, which as soon as the sun comes out I will attempt to photograph!
I am going to begin with the more obvious delights, the flowers which can still be found at this time of year. There may not be many but they are worth their weight in gold. In my younger, keener days I once started the new year with the intention of listing for every day of the year the plants in flower and even in January and February I did have some plants on my list although I have to admit that after that I gave up because there were simply too many to deal with! These winter flowers are just amazing coming out as they do in the worst of our weather and delight us with their beauty and hardiness. Some you can rely on every year, others are just hanging on from the autumn but all are very welcome. In the first group I would include Jasminum nudiflorum (Winter Jasmine), Mahonia x media and Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’. The Winter Jasmine is literally a star in the winter garden covered as it is with many small, bright yellow, 6-petalled stars. Even its flower buds with their pink-red colouring are a bonus at this time of year. I know it can be a rather untidy shrub and is not a true climber in that it needs to be tied onto wires or, as in our case, fed through a trellis for support but it surely earns its place in the winter garden. I have been watching the Mahonia all through November after it first started to show signs of its flower spikes full of tiny yellow buds. At the beginning of December these have opened, at the base of the spike at least, to produce four striking ‘inflorescences’, each made up of at least ten slightly arching flower spikes known as racemes. Our plant is one of the Mahonia x media group which includes ‘Buckland’, ‘Charity’, ‘Lionel Fortescue’ and ‘Winter Sun’. It grows in a very windy spot and gets only late afternoon sun but seems to thrive there. The Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’ has been in flower all through November but now that all the leaves have fallen is even more attractive in my view. The flower clusters are made up of small, pink, tubular, heavily scented flowers which will appear throughout the winter especially in milder spells.
Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’ but ‘Dawn’ is just as good
Mahonia x media Jasminum nudiflorum
The second group of flowering plants in December, if we are lucky, are those which are just producing a few flowers right at the end of their flowering period. The beauty is that next year this group might be made up of a very different mix of plants depending on the weather of the previous months. This year we have Penstemon ‘Raven’, our three Parahebes and Persicaria affinis all of which I have discussed and photographed before. We also have one of our patio pots in full flower although with frost forecast it may not be for much longer! I have mentioned this plant several times this year and named it as one of the Bidens, however, I have just come across the label and discovered that it is in fact Sanvitalia ‘Gold Queen’ and it is certainly one that I shall be looking out for next year. We also still have some colour on the Hydrangeas and I think these faded colours have a real beauty of their own which is then followed by the transparent heads which we will leave on until the spring. In addition I also found a few flowers on a Red Campion which was a very pleasant surprise. We like to have a few wild flowers around the garden partly as they benefit the insects and birds and this year we have enjoyed Corncockle, Meadow Cranesbill, Toadflax and Corn Marigold as well as Red Campion all of which hopefully will have set some seed for next year.
Sanvitalia ‘Gold Queen’ Hydrangeas fading gracefully!
My next ‘delight’ in the December garden is the promise of the buds swelling on many of the trees and shrubs, some of which of course are flower buds. Our two ornamental Cherries both have plump buds all over them and will keep me interested until they eventually flower in April and May. I think this is why gardeners are generally regarded as optimists because we know that there are real beauties just around the corner. With the flower buds on other shrubs I won’t have to wait quite so long to see them blossom. Our Witch Hazel is absolutely full of its very distinctive flower buds which will open to reveal the spidery, yellow, lightly scented flowers over the coming months. Our plant is Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ which we partly choose for its good autumn colour in which the leaves turn from green to yellow-orange from the edges in bands towards the centre. In the same group is Cornus mas (Cornelian Cherry) with its small, round flower buds which will open when they are ready in the new year when the whole shrub will be a mass of tiny yellow fireworks.
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ Cornus mas
Nearby beneath a Cotoneaster tree/shrub and near the front gate is a Sarcococca, our plant being S. hookeriana var. digyna ‘Purple Stem’, which is showing its white flower buds at the moment. It is known as the Christmas Box but is more likely to flower in January when it will fill the front garden with its wonderful, heady scent. Also in the front we have two Skimmias which are showing lots of small pink or white buds in clusters which will decorate the shrubs throughout the winter until they open to small white-pink, lightly scented flowers in late winter/early spring. We never get any berries so our plants must both be males.
Sarcococca ‘Purple Stem’ Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’
As a contrast the Star Magnolia, Magnolia stellata, near to them has much larger, single, almost furry buds which swell through the winter until they open in spring. This is echoed by the already swollen buds on the Lilac (Syringa) and the Camellia, C. x williamsii ‘Anticipation’ whose name really sums it all up! Other plants have colourful leaf buds just waiting for the spring as in the case of our Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ (Elder) with its dark purple buds.
Magnolia stellata Camellia x williamsii ‘Anticipation’
In terms of foliage colour in December I have to say that there is not a lot left after the strong winds of November. However, we do have two Maples which still have leaves on and especially when the sun is out they light up and give great pleasure. The Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ and C. ‘Grace’ also still have some of their red-purple leaves and again look best with the light coming through them. I would normally expect the Oak-leaved Hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, to be in good colour now but this year it hasn’t shown much colour at all yet but I am still hopeful that it will start to do so as the weather cools. We shall see – this is one of the joys of gardening, the plants don’t always do what you expect them to.
The last few leaves on two of our Japanese Maples
One feature of the winter garden that you can always rely on though is the wonderful patterns and shapes made by the branches and twigs on trees and shrubs against the sky. Every tree and shrub has a beauty in its own way but perhaps some are more interesting than others. We have a small Robinia, R. ‘Lace Lady’, which has quite twisted branches and twigs and when in leaf has what look like bunches of hair hanging in ringlets. I’m not sure I’m selling this very well but Teresa really likes it so it has a place in our garden! More to my taste is a small Cherry, Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’, which in the garden can grow to 8-10 feet (2-3 metres) and in spring has large numbers of red buds opening to small, pale pink flowers which gives it its common name ‘The Shrub of a Thousand Butterflies’! However, in the winter its attraction is its angular shaping of the twigs, almost as if it has been wired as a bonsai. For this reason I am growing a plant in a pot which I am training in the ‘Windswept Style’ to resemble an old tree such as a Hawthorn shaped by strong winds over many years. I know it sounds a bit obsessive and controlling but at least it keeps me off the streets! On a more normal note I also take great delight from the twig and branch structure of our ‘Waterfall Maple’ especially when, as on a recent morning, it has drops of water or indeed frost being lit by the early morning sun.
Robinia ‘Lace Lady’ Prunus ‘Kojo-no-mai’- it will look better when finished!
Our ‘Waterfall’ Maple A second Maple with colourful twigs
This is also the case with any seed heads which remain standing after the autumn storms. We have Honesty ‘Silver Penny’ seed heads (Lunaria annua) dotted around the garden which always light up when the sun comes out. This is also the case with colourful stems at this time of year. The best known are probably the Winter Stem Dogwoods (Cornus) but our best colours come from some of our Japanese Maples in various shades or red, orange and yellow.
Lunaria annua (Honesty) Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’ (sometimes labelled as ‘Senkaki’)
Finally in the winter garden the evergreens really come into their own while many of the deciduous plants take a rest and a back seat. This is the time of year to take stock of your evergreens and to possibly think about adding a few more. As I have mentioned before garden designers tend to work on the basis of around one third of shrubs being evergreen and two thirds deciduous to give a good balance. Some that are really standing out for us at this time are the spiky leaflets of the Mahonia, the upright, narrow and green-yellow form of Yew, Taxus baccata ‘Standishii’, the bronze-purple Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’, an evergreen Cotoneaster and a dwarf, mountain pine, Pinus mugo ‘Carstens Wintergold’ which as the winter progresses turns from green to gold! Added to this, at least for the moment, are our three Buddlejas with their grey-green leaves which in a mild winter may stay on until the spring.
Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’ Pinus mugo ‘Carstens Wintergold’
As in all months there is still work to be done in the December garden but not so much that can’t wait for a pleasant, dry and hopefully sunny day. The full list as usual is given in the blog archives for 2019. As for us we will get the last of the leaves into bags which can then be put out of the way for one or even two years and at the same time I (this is another ‘blue’ job!) will remove as much dead plant material from the pond as I can to stop it building up at the bottom. Work on the lawn has finished for the season and in winter we try to keep off it as much as possible especially when it is wet or frosty when the soil can become compacted and the blades of grass damaged. We will also continue to remove and compost herbaceous material as it becomes damaged or untidy again when the soil is not too wet. Winter generally is also a good time for pruning deciduous trees and shrubs. With the leaves gone you can see what you are doing and as the plants are dormant there is no chance of the cuts ‘bleeding’ ie. losing sap. I remember once pruning an outdoor grapevine a little too late in the winter and as the sap had started to rise it just flowed out of the cut like an open wound! Not all trees and shrubs need pruning so don’t feel that you have to do anything to them at all. However, if you see any dead or diseased wood or crossing branches which are or might rub together it is a good idea to remove them by cutting out the whole shoot back to a joint or healthy bud. Some small trees and shrubs might be taking up too much room in the garden (large trees are best dealt with by a qualified person for safety reasons) and this is a good time to do some reduction in size. The most drastic solution is of course to remove the whole plant as we did with a couple of large, old Spiraeas earlier this year, the advantage being that it creates space for a whole new group of plants. If you want to retain the plant in a smaller form just remember that the harder you prune the stronger the resulting regrowth will be so when restricting size a light pruning will lead to a better result than a severe hacking back! When shortening a shoot always make a clean cut with secateurs or loppers just above a strong, healthy bud. With single buds a sloping cut at a similar angle to the bud itself is the best method but with paired buds the cut still needs to be made close to them but straight across. Along with this pruning of the shoot ends older stems can be cut back harder to open up the centre of the plant and encourage new growth from lower down. Just one plea if you are cutting branches back to a trunk or main stem using a saw or loppers, try to make a clean cut near to the main stem preferably just at the outer edge of the branch collar which is the slightly swollen ring where the branch meets the trunk. This way there won’t be an ugly stub which will die back to the trunk and might introduce disease and the cut will seal and callous over more quickly as the collar contains the cells that drive the process. If a branch is quite heavy then the pruning process needs to be done in two stages so that the bark is not torn off the trunk just below the cut. Firstly whilst supporting the weight of the branch cut it off to around 6 inches (15 cms) from the trunk so that if it does ‘rip’ it only damages the 6 inch stub. Then cut the stub back to the collar as described above. If you have any trees and shrubs with old stubs from previous pruning attempts I would always cut these back to the collar if only for aesthetic reasons. Any diseased materials should be burned or taken as green waste to the recycling centre but other material can be composted as long as it is cut up, chipped or shredded. It really helps decomposition as woody material is carbon-based and this with nitrogen-based leaf material is the ideal combination for the compost heap.
Along with ornamental deciduous shrubs and trees the pruning of most fruit trees and bushes is also done in the winter except for ‘stone’ fruits such as Cherries, Plums and Damsons which if winter pruned can suffer from a fungal disease known as Silver Leaf. Pruning for these is a summer job so nothing to worry about at the moment. Pruning fruit trees and bushes is a little bit more technical than for ornamental plants because it is all about encouraging fruiting and if you need to do it and want some advice about how to go about it I would refer you to a good book or the internet.
At this time of year especially can I also make a plea for you to provide food and water for our feathered friends as I am sure many of you already do. Not only will it give you great pleasure watching their antics but it will also keep the birds interested in your garden where they will continue to feed on any unwanted insects and eggs. Mainly, of course it will help them survive the rigours of winter so that they will still be around in the spring when they will do even more pest control for you.
Finally and traditionally one of December’s or winter’s jobs has been to plan for the new year ahead by considering re-designs or re-plantings and by consulting the seed and plant catalogues and now of course websites, even if it is only for ideas.
In the next blog I will have a look at creating garden ponds something which can bring a whole new dimension to any garden. This is a good project for the early part of the year so that the new pond is ready for filling and planting in the spring. This will be followed in January with a blog which will focus on all the signs of hope that can delight us in the garden at that time.
Until then keep well and keep gardening when the weather permits and for those of you that won’t be looking at the pond blog I wish you all the very best Christmas you can have in this strange year and that 2021 will be much better for all of us!