December and early January is generally a quiet time in the garden as most people’s attention are on Christmas preparations and sleeping off the New Year excess and of course the weather just after the shortest day of the year is cold , wet and dark and even the most active of gardeners take some time off !
Traditionally years ago this was the time to look through seed catalogues and order in for the new season and of course those with some disposable wealth can look through outdoor gardening clothing guides and I was reminded of this recently when the Daily Telegraph published it’s annual guide to posh gardening clobber with posh prices to match . Of course this article is aimed at Chelsea and Kensington Sloane Ranger gardeners whose main aim is to be seen and not to do actual gardening work , God forbid they would be expected to kneel down with a trowel at any stage or that their Barbour wellies would actually get muddy !
I am of the school that gardening clothes are what will no longer look OK to walk down the town in apart from a few ex army sweaters plus a few jumpers from former Danish , US and Canadian customs colleagues while pants are army surplus but lately I have been thinking of upgrading my gardening gear … not to Sloane Ranger quality mind you as a few years ago I decided I needed posh wellies so coughed up for a pair of Barbour … worst purchase ever as they leaked after three trips around the garden in the woodland area where they obviously picked up a thorn and now they adorn the garden shed as I haven’t had the heart to bin them but this Spring I intend to fill them full of gravel and plant some alpines in them !
Last month in these pages I wrote about the Remembrance Day Poppy and it’s place in British history to commemorate the First World War and coincidentally Eileen Acheson contacted me just after I had put it up on FB and asked if I would contribute a piece for the Spoken Word programme for the Clonmel Arts Group on December 14th and when I asked what topic she would like me to talk about she said perhaps something festive for the time of year or the garden or “ just be yourself ” I read Eileen’s text out to Snezana and asked her what she thought I should write about , she replied “ MY WONDERFUL WIFE ” but however enticing that opportunity to spill the beans might be I decided to stay in safer waters !
I called the piece The Poppy and in it I and gave an account of my Grandfather’s service in the trenches of the 1914-18 war as a captain in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers where he was wounded in the Battle of the Somme and never returned to his home , wife and family and died in 1922 .
I grew up as an only son with a Father who was rabid about a lot of things , so rabidly Irish republican that I was banned from reading English newspapers or comics or playing the garrison sport i.e. soccer but so rabidly a communist that as a six year old my only reading material in English allowed at home was Soviet Weekly which ironically was to serve me well forty years later when I worked for the EU in the Former Yugoslavia and where I regularly amazed my former socialist republic colleagues by being able to recite from memory tractor production data for the Ukraine in the mid 1950’s or grain production in Eastern Slavonia or who ‘s who in the Yugoslav politburo in 1962 !!
I ended with this last paragraph “ For the past sixty years I have missed the fact that I grew up without knowing my Grandfather as I feel we would have got on and I would have loved the opportunity to ask him what life was like in the trenches , what he thought of his superior officers and was it really a case of “ Lions led by donkeys ” and did he really feel fighting for the British Army was worth it ? ”.
A lovely shrub at this time of year is viburnum tinus and while you may not know it by it’s latin name you have seen it many times in dark areas of almost every garden and in graveyards where it is especially popular . It will grow almost anywhere but does best in shade , is evergreen with a lovely shiny green leaf and just coming into flower now and will continue to brighten up dark corners of the garden until April . The variety I go for is the dwarf version Evelyn Price which I find does really well in pots but they need to be large pots and as it is evergreen it can look well throughout the year . It is not what I would call a first division shrub more a plant for the background , a space filler and a very reliable plant for any garden , it is supposedly a dwarf variety shrub but only because it is a slow grower and eventually you will need to cut it back in certain situations or you can choose to let it get tall as I have done in the woodland area here but a plant I would not be without in the garden especially in the winter when it comes into it’s own with masses of white flowers outlined by it’s deep green leaves … and if you need to cut it back at any stage then immediately after flowering is a good time although with Viburnum Tinus you can hack it back at any time of the year as when it flowers it flowers despite whatever you do to it .
I wrote last month about pruning whenever you have a secateurs in your hand and when you are in the mood but there are some rules in that you should prune or cut back flowering shrubs immediately after flowering as next year’s flowers will be on the new shoots unlike for example roses which can be hacked back at any time . I learnt this to my cost when after writing last month about spirea arguta or the Easter garland shrub a few days later I saw it had been sheared to the ground by the other gardener here who as is her wont said “ it will grow back ” and my reply which has been abbreviated here and cleaned of bad language was that while yes it would grow back however we can kiss goodbye to any flowers until 2020 .
The Christmas tree market is huge from late November and lots of articles speaking of the virtues of a real tree as against an artificial version and while a freshly cut Christmas tree smells beautifully pine for the first few days until the central heating causes the tree to shed and the branches to droop however there is no debate for me as we have enjoyed a “ fake ” tree for the past ten years . I hate the fact that christmas trees are grown commercially like battery hens packed tightly together and then cut down after fifteen years , gets to be useful for four weeks and is then composted or shredded .
A real tree looks great but you need to decorate it very lightly whereas I go for the bling bling effect and pile ornaments , lights and baubles … but there is an art to decorating a tree , colour has to be balanced in the ornaments as has the size of decoration and you need to take time to “ build ” a Christmas tree . You also need patience to get the overall effect you are looking for and as last Christmas was the first one that Snezana was free for the entire Christmas I thought she would be able to enjoy the delight of building the tree together … good luck with that Senor … as after two minutes of placing one ornament … this is shite , just throw them up on the tree , if they fall they fall !
I have read about and often wished for an App that would identify plants , trees , shrubs which would be very helpful for all of us from beginner to expert and mentioned this to youngest son , Diarm , walking through the garden a few days ago , quick as a flash he whipped out his I Phone and searched for garden apps and using plantsapp tried it out … mixed results though as while it could identify an obvious tree as silver birch it failed on a lot of plants as for example could not differentiate between a sedge grass and a pampas grass and admittedly there is not a lot of difference in the leaf but there is a huge difference in size . Basically it could give three options and it required a bit of gardening knowledge to identify the correct plant or tree and I feel these apps work better in the summer when there is a lot more leaves to target … so no joy on the gardening app front yet !
2018 will not be remembered kindly in gardening terms as in late February we got hit by the Beast from the East which brought massive snowfall admittedly over a short few days but which nonetheless cut down a lot of trees and shrubs while at the other end of the scale the once in one hundred years drought which went on for over seven weeks in June / July killed a huge amount of plants and from which we will not know the full extent of the damage until next spring to see what comes back into growth .
This year in April I finally got around to dealing with a problem spot in the lower wood , an area between the two lawns which was wet until June each year , by digging out a new wild life pond which I planted up with slips and cuttings from other wetland areas of the garden and which now eight months later has taken shape as if it was there always .
Snezana tackled the japanese knotweed at the entrance to the lower garden in March and doggedly kept cutting back each new set of knotweed while I regularly gave it a shot of systemic weedkiller throughout the year , knotweed is tenacious but she has kept the area clean and the ground there is full of humus and should grow a variety of plants and we have agreed on a silver birch under planted with geranium but it will probably take another year to clean the knotweed completely .
This year in July we lost Toby to general old age , our neighbour Margaret’s dog , a mainstay of the garden since the beginning and there wasn’t a tree or shrub he hadn’t watered over that fifteen years , a lovely dog that is very much missed .
Colour in the garden December 30th 2018
I always feel that when we get to the end of December without any really frozen conditions that the garden can survive anything nature can throw at it in January / February as spring is just around the corner .
Bring on 2019 and a very Happy New Year to you all !