As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens” is a saying endorsed by many winters. In January, our gardens may well be frosted and frozen, but in these often beautiful and milder days that run up to Christmas, there are many windows of opportunity. Here is my Christmas gardening “Advent calendar” of 24 jobs that can make a real difference to your enjoyment of the garden next year.
December 1st Poppies will be having a field day in 2014, with the First World War centenary. Results will be far better if they’re sown before Christmas. Order quickly, as many councils are also buying vast quantities of Papaver rhoeas (field poppy, corn poppy, Flanders poppy). Try Emorsgate Seeds (Wildseed).
2nd Bulb suppliers offer big discounts now. Many bulbs are fine planted up to and even beyond Christmas. Tulips are brilliant stocking fillers (seeGee Tee). I have ordered 1,000 violet-blue Triteleia ‘Queen Fabiola’ for £25 to form strips of colour along my yew hedge base. The quickest way to plant large quantities of bulbs is to lift a flap of close-mown turf, plant seven or more per pit and push the flap back down. Protect crocus bulbs from squirrels with chicken wire on top (removed as they start to show).
3rd Planting my wallflowers. This gets later every year, but at least if you grow your own (sown in plugs in May/June and then transplanted into some spare ground and pinched out) you will be lifting big, bushy plants with mini root balls, so they cope well with a late move.
4th I’m still collecting seed, especially from my cleomes. Putting them in the fridge in a plastic bag for a couple of weeks helps germinating, then pop them into trays with a thin covering of vermiculite on the kitchen window sill.
5th A last-minute dash to clean up the greenhouse. The quickest way to remove pests and fungal spores is to use a sulphur candle (available from many garden centres), but you must take out any plants and leave it shut up for 12 hours.
6th Get all tender plants moved to snug places – porches, windowsills, garages. Invest in a roll of fleece and lots of mulch. Slightly iffy plants left outside such as agapanthus, dahlias, tulbaghias and Canna iridiflora will benefit from a big, thick duvet of mulch.
7th Move lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) inside. Add fresh leaves and honey to a green tea. It de-stresses, aids digestion and eases colic. A potted plant would be the ideal present.
8th Get bare-root hedges, trees and shrubs in before Christmas if possible or at least order them.
9th Put spiral plastic tree guards on all young, newly planted trees to protect against rabbit damage.
10th Check that all new plants are labelled. The Touch Labelling Co (01572 574910) labels last more than 20 years.
11th Zap any lingering bindweed or ground elder with glyphosate. It will still be effective now (though slower to work) and will make life easier next spring.
12th Keep on picking and storing apples and pears.
13th Leave some apples, chopped in half, for birds; they are great for fieldfares, redwings and thrushes. Build an apple tower on a cane and watch them enjoy!
14th Put water out for birds too; add a ping-pong ball, which helps slow the freezing.
15th Make a fat ball for them too, but don’t use turkey fat as it does not set hard, and so gets smeared on beaks and, worse still, feathers.
16th Leaf sweeping using the mower set high is quick, and speeds breakdown. Avoid if frost is on its way.
17th You may not get around to cleaning your tools, but do get the mower blades sharpened and, ideally, keep a spare pair.
18th Climbing roses need pruning and tying back to stop them waving around.
19th Mulching roses helps them earn their keep; it also keeps down the spread of black spot, especially if you remove all infected leaves too.
20th Bring in the furniture if necessary, let it dry and give a good clean down with a stiff brush to remove any dirt. Then apply liberal coats of teak oil before brushing off excess after the oil has had a chance to soak in.
21st Pot up any promising-looking cuttings or young plants, as presents. Even small-rooted pelargonium cuttings are extremely welcome to gardening friends.
22nd Remove mummified fruit from fruit trees, to stop disease spreading.
23rd Start winding down. Get out a great seed catalogue, such as that from heirloomtoms.org. Order dark purple-black ‘Indigo Rose’ tomatoes (very high in anthocyanins and tasty), some ‘Dragon’s Egg’ cucumbers – which taste like melons but are far easier to grow – and/or some ‘Red Hmong’ cucumbers just 5-6in long in a dusky orange but with a bewitching and exquisite flavour. Try Rainbow Beet from Thompson and Morgan, a mix of scarlet, gold, candy-striped and white beetroot, which I found easy, delicious and attractive.
24th Set out some home-made chilli vodka and a mince pie for your favourite Father Christmas, and if you both get done in time you can knock it back together!