Updated: Dec 4, 2021
A couple of days ago we experienced the first serious frost of the winter. It is always a turning point in the year. The proof is that our dahlias have blackened and died back overnight.
Dahlias are the most wonderful plants - flowering from summer until the first frosts when they immediately blacken and die back. There are two schools of thought as to what to do once this happens. You can either cut the stems back to just above ground level, label the spot, add a nice dry mulch to keep them cozy and leave them in place to overwinter, or, if you are concerned that the winter cold may kill them, you can lift them. Dry the lifted tubers (with about an inch or so of stem still attached to them) somewhere airy, label them and then put them into a box and surround with something dry and insulating (I use dead bamboo leaves, but newspaper or old dry compost will do) and leave them until early spring when you can divide and replant them or take cuttings. The tubers need to be frost free over winter. I lift some and leave some and we do occasionally lose some tubers which have been left in the ground.
We have also seen a rapid increase in activity around the various bird feeding stations in the garden. Most of the seed heads in the garden and surrounding fields have now given up their seeds so everyone homes in on the sunflower seeds and peanuts, fat balls, mealworm blocks and bits of fruit we put out for them. Cheeky Bird Of The Year award goes to a goldfinch who sits on the sunflower seed dispenser outside our kitchen window, fights off all of the (much bigger) great tits and then chucks all of the seeds out of the dispenser onto the ground. He/she thinks it is a great game and will happily sit there for ten minutes at a time throwing birdseed everywhere. Ground feeding chaffinches and sparrows are most appreciative and hide amongst the rosemary branches under the feeder waiting manna from heaven to rain down on them, as it were.
Blue tits and a great tit making the most of a peanut feast.
Here is a list of some of the things you can safely do at this time of year:
· Transplant deciduous bare rooted trees and shrubs. Once they have lost their leaves you can safely move young trees and shrubs from one part of the garden to another – and buy bare rooted plants (including roses) from nurseries. Make sure the roots don’t dry out, plant in a hole which is bigger than you would imagine necessary and add some good quality compost to the soil you pack around the roots. Firm the plant in, staking if necessary, and water it well and regularly for the next couple of years.
· Continue pruning deciduous trees and shrubs where appropriate. As a general rule, prune spring flowering shrubs just after they have flowered and prune shrubs which flower in July or later in the winter. Avoid very cold and frosty weather and aim to remove dead, diseased and crossing wood first. Then prune to shape. Take your time – it is easy to cut a bit more off but you can’t stick a branch back on again.
· Take hard wood cuttings of deciduous shrubs. This really is the easiest form of plants for free. I will write about it in more detail over the next week or so.
· Check protective covers on tender plants in the garden.
· Remember to water and, if need be, feed, plants which are undercover
· Regularly put out food for the birds
· Order “in the green” snowdrops and aconites. In the green means that they have leaves. Snowdrops and aconites (eranthis hyemalis to give aconites their correct name) establish much more successfully if they are bought and planted when they are in leaf, or even flower rather than as dry and dormant bulbs. You can buy them cheaply by the hundred and they arrive wrapped in damp newspaper. However, since Brexit I have been unable to find a supplier of these plants in the green in France. If anyone knows of one, please let me know.
· Clean your garden tools and pots
· Continue to weed and mulch where necessary
· Reassess the design of your garden while it is at its most bare. This is the time of year when you can assess whether a garden has a good bone structure, because the basic structure is clearly visible – that is to say you can easily see whether the beds are of the right proportion, paths in the right place and of the right width and whether hedging, fences and walls are in good shape.
· Carry out planned maintenance of your compost bins. It is far too hot a job in the summer.
· Sow seeds which need a period of winter cold in order to germinate
· Dig over bare beds allowing the frost to help break down the soil.
I think this is a good time of year to do battle with a very large and vigorous bamboo which we inherited. This monster needs to be cut back regularly, thinned to create light within the clump and young shoots must be mown over as they sprout. However, it produces bamboo canes of enormous length and the dead leaves are handy where I need dry mulches in the garden. Our grandsons and the hens all consider it to make an excellent den and for part of each year it is host to a vast army of starlings which roost in it overnight. The collective noun for a group of starlings is a murmuration, but they don't murmur. The noise at dawn and dusk is deafening - but it doesn't last long and we feel privileged that they choose us as their seasonal home.
The one occasion we got a bit cross was when the racket went on well into the night. We got up to investigate and found a barn owl in amongst the starlings looking for its dinner.
Happy gardening in December - we are almost at the winter solstice and, by the end of the month, the days will be getting noticeably longer again.