December always feels like a slightly gloomy month, gardening-wise. It’s cold and probably wet too. Although (at time of writing) we’ve only just had our first proper frost in this part of the world, real winter weather won’t be far off now. (It’s no wonder that our ancestors liked to party at this time of year, to stave off those winter blues and hope for the return of the sun!)
But we should take heart from the fact that December is the turning point of the gardening year. From the winter solstice (21st December), the days start lengthening again, and we can look forward to the new growing season. Here’s our pick of the top jobs to be getting stuck into this month – in case you’re looking for an excuse to get out of the Christmas washing up!
Now is a great time to plant ornamental trees and deciduous shrubs, as long as the ground isn’t frozen solid or completely waterlogged. Any time between October and April is also good for bare-root roses so you haven’t missed the chance to get them in, too.
Talking of shrubs, why not plant something fragrant in a pot by your front or back door, to give a little scent boost to this grey season? Daphne odora or Sarcococca would make great choices. (Click here to read the RHS top ten picks for winter-scented plants https://www.rhs.org.uk/garden-inspiration/seasonal/10-agm-plants-winter-scent )
If you’re a rhubarb fan, now is the time to lift and divide any large clumps. Replant the sections in soil boosted with some well-rotted manure. You could also select one or two clumps to begin forcing now, for an earlier crop of pale and tasty stems.
December is generally a good time to prune woody stems. Remember the mantra ‘diseased, damaged or dead’ and take those stems out first, then you can prune for shape. Try to prune on mild days; frozen wood will shatter when cut, making for an uneven stub that is more prone to disease.
Climbing, hybrid tea and floribunda roses (but not ramblers) can all be pruned any time from now until February. Overgrown shrubs and hedges can be hard-pruned now, while they’re dormant, and many fruit trees will benefit from a serious trim to improve shape and their crop next year (although do check whether your tree bears fruit on old or new stems before diving in!). Grapevines (both in the greenhouse or outdoor) can also be pruned now: cut back side branches to a length of just one or two buds to encourage strong growth next year.
When you can, put woody stems through a shredder so they will compost more easily but remember not to compost anything that is diseased.
If you haven’t already, December is about ‘battening down the hatches’ on your garden in preparation for the worst of the winter weather to come. Even hardy plants in pots can suffer as temperatures drop, so think about moving them into sheltered spots. Straw, bracken or fleece packed around the base of tender plants will help protect them, whether they are in the ground or in pots.
If you’ve stored away bulbs or corms ready for the spring, remember to check them occasionally for signs of damp (or mice!). Bring in watering equipment or water features so that they don’t freeze and split (or drain them thoroughly if they can’t be moved).
If you’ve filled your greenhouse with tender plants, check on your max-min thermometer regularly to make sure your heater is doing its job. If you haven’t yet filled your greenhouse, now is a good time to give it (and your pots and tools) a good clean and disinfect, to stop pests and diseases lingering.
Although there are still some seeds and berries around at the moment, our feathered friends will welcome any food you care to offer them as well, to ensure they have a varied diet. Hang your bird feeders near your roses to attract birds that will also pick off any overwintering pests. And remember to put fresh water out regularly too. It’s easy for bird baths and dishes to fill with dead leaves or to freeze at this time of year, so check them whenever you can.
On a winter’s evening, when it really is too dark or too cold to get outside, is there anything more comforting than a nice hot mug of something and the gardening catalogues? This is a great time to plan ahead for what you want to grow next year. Reflect on what worked (or didn’t work) for you this year and take it from there. At this time of year, expect to be able to order seeds and summer-flowering bulbs, pre-order some plug plants, and order manure or mushroom compost, to spread over bare soil and give your worms something to work on ready for planting in spring.
Looking ahead to a new gardening year, now is also a great time to consider giving any garden machinery, like your lawn mower, a service. Whether you are confident doing that yourself or you choose a professional service, you know it will be in good working order for when things start to grow again.
We wish you a very happy Christmas from the team here at Hambrooks and leave you with the corniest Christmas cracker joke we could find:
What is Father Christmas’s favourite garden tool? A hoe, hoe, hoe!