In the Christmas month, the garden will have one of two appearances: either it will be bare and clean, with branches and twigs silhouetted against the sky, the grass short and green and the soil borders and beds nicely brown, or it will be completely white, with only the evergreens and the red berries and haws of holly, thorn, rose and cotoneaster to colour it. Whichever it is, the gardener at any rate is now allowed a well-earned rest and a change as the end of the year and all its festivities comes. Indeed it is obligatory, however enthusiastic the gardener, that there should be some pause in the routine, otherwise the mind becomes set and the garden pattern reflects this
and is static. Its owner needs to recharge his gardening outlook by letting it lie fallow, just as soil, left uncultivated for a season, builds up its food content and repairs its structure.
For the first fortnight or so there are small jobs to do, for instance planting of shrubs, trees, fruit and roses can be continued or finished as the weather allows. Pruning and spraying of fruit can continue; digging and manuring of borders and vegetable plots can finish. It is advisable to do this before Christmas to give the soil time to absorb the fresh material, and to allow sufficient time before spring for the breaking up of clay soil by frost.
Slug bait will be needed round delphiniums, lupins, pyrethrums and other succulent shooted border plants. Watch for bud pecking of fruit and ornamental trees, such as cherry and forsythia. There should not yet be trouble with bark stripping by rabbits and mice, but a wary eye can be kept open for this, particularly if the weather suddenly becomes very cold for a few days. Top the grass in the middle of the day when it is dry and the soil moist but not soaking.
One now has time to overhaul the machinery used during the year, such as rotavators, lawn mowers and hedge cutters, to sharpen all cutting blades and to clean and oil all hand tools.
The greenhouse will be the pleasantest and prettiest place, with chrysanthemums, freesias, azaleas, cyclamen, forced hyacinths and ‘Soleil D’Or’ narcissi, saintpaulias, poinsettias and Christmas cactus in full flower. Heat will be needed every night and sometimes during the day. Chrysanthemums boxed up and put in the frame last month can come in and be watered, in mid December, so that they start to grow and produce shoots for cuttings. It is the shoots that come from below soil level that will grow into the best plants; those which sprout from the old stems will not be strong. Sometimes chrysanthemum crowns or stools will produce a tremendous number of shoots tightly clustered round the old stems, and when this happens it is a sign that the plant is infected with a bacterial trouble called crown gall, and should be discarded.
Sweet peas passing the winter in frames should be stopped at the fourth leaf, and looked at occasionally in case they need further protection from mice. Fruit in store should also be examined occasionally, together with dahlia tubers and root vegetables, and rotting specimens should be removed.
This is a good time, while the bones of the garden show, to re-design unsatisfactory parts of it and to carry out new constructions, put up fruit cages and so on. Concrete paths can be laid (but not in frosty weather), ponds excavated before the soil becomes really wet, pergolas and arches built and paving laid for terraces and patios. Rock gardens can be established, or improved in their lay out, new borders cut and old ones turfed or planted with such ground cover plants as ajuga, periwinkle, lamium, Rosa paulii, violets, hypericums and saxifrages. A pattern fot a herb garden can be laid down, or a fruit garder planned – dry stone walls built and planted. Colour groupings can be improved, planting a border with all the red tones or all the yellow ones, using leaves as well as flowers to give the effect. There is time to put any of these ideas into practice now, or to mull them over ready for carrying them out in the early spring.
Flowers for picking for Christmas celebrations will be in all the best gardens; there will be a few roses here and there, the hellebores (Helleborus orsentalis) will be in bloom, so will laurustinus, winter jasmine, hamamelis, chimonanthus, mahonia, Erica cinerea and its varieties, primroses and violets in sheltered places, the occasional precocious ‘japonica’ bloom, sedums, pansies, to say nothing of the greenhouse offerings. Iris reticulata may be showing bud towards the end of the month and if picked and put in a vase in the warmth, will unfold its dark purple-blue, fragrant flowers.
The plants in pots, both flowering and foliage can go into the home for the time being for extra decoration, and all sorts of berrying shrubs will add to their colour. The evergreens will retain their leaves, especially the conifers, if sprayed with the modern polyvinyl resin which lasts for several weeks, before or immediately after cutting, as it seals the pores and prevents the loss of water vapour.
Often, sadly, one of December’s disasters is the death of expensive pot plants, acquired as Christmas gifts. Such plants include the azaleas, poinsettias, cyclamen, Christmas cactus and the zebra plant (Aphelandra squarrosa), at the height of their flowering season, covered in bloom and apparently in the best of health. They are in fact extremely fit, but the change from nursery greenhouse conditions to those of the home, particularly at Christmas time, is often too much for them. In no time, buds and flowers have dropped, leaves withered and fallen, and a few stark bare stems are all that is left of a once beautiful plant. One is so occupied at Christmas with other things that plants have all kinds of extreme and distasteful conditions to cope with, and it is no wonder that many succumb.
Smoky, dry atmospheres often predominate; although the temperature may be well up, it will be too high near radiators, electric or coal fires. Conversely, windowsills behind drawn curtains where pot plants are often put, can be death traps of freezing air, as the outside temperature drops swiftly to or below freezing, as it can easily do at this time.
In all the excitement nothing is more likely to be overlooked than watering, and an azalea in full bloom will want a big drink at least every day; cyclamen also flag extremely quickly with their leaves turning yellow, and the zebra plant will droop its leaves in no time, as it is another plant that must have a daily drink when flowering. Plants may also suffer from being given liquids other than water at this time of the year. Draughts are a further menace as doors constantly open with the arrival and departure of guests and family; one way and another, all pot plants have a hard time of it.
Try to remember at any rate, to review the water needs every day; bring the plants in from the windowsills when the curtains are drawn. Spray them lavishly every day with clear water, or pack really damp peat all round the container and keep it damp. Keep them somewhere out of the line of draughts and away from fierce heat.
Then leave the garden alone, except for the greenhouse, enjoy Christmas, hibernate a little as all sensible animals do in the short dark days, and come back to it with a refreshed mind in the New Year when the days begin to lengthen.