December is not only the month to deck the halls with boughs of holly—it’s also the time to deck the garden out. Or at least, spend some time ensuring that it remains fully functioning and joyful during the colder weather. While you’re roasting chestnuts on an open fire, jack frost is busy nipping at your plants. So here are my top gardening jobs for December, to make sure your garden stays as jolly as you are this month.
1. Prevent water from freezing
Water is a crucial part of plant life and at this time of year, although water is often in full supply, it can cause issues if it begins to freeze. So firstly, I would recommend that you take some time to insulate your outdoor taps. To do this, simply use a tap cosy, or similar, to provide protection from the elements and then fix in place—if nothing else, this can be done with garden twine.
This will prevent your pipes from freezing; an issue which can be can cause catastrophic damage. Not only should water apparatus be prepared but, not surprisingly, your plants will need your help when water becomes solid and they can’t absorb it from the soil.
For instance, in the event of potted plant’s soil freezing, containers will expand and could crack. See my blog for helpful advice on how best to avoid this.
Once your taps and plants are suitably wrapped up warmly, it’s time to make sure ponds and bird baths are prevented from freezing too. Animals need our help to keep their sources of water accessible and there are some simple ways in which you can help prevents ponds and bird baths from freezing over. One idea is to float a suitably sized football on the surface of the water—this should keep the water around the ball moving, meaning that it’s less likely to freeze.
During really cold snaps, it’s unlikely this will prevent all of the water remaining ice-free, so I would recommend placing two or three footballs (or plastic containers) in the water, depending on the size of your pond. Ideally, one of these should be situated near the edge of the water so that birds can easily access the water’s surface. A pond aerator will have a similar affect as this, but they can be costly.
Finally, if despite your best efforts, freezing does occur, then make sure to thaw the ice as often as possible. To do this, use a hot kettle to melt the ice, as smashing it can harm pond inhabitants. For bird baths, leave a tennis ball floating on the surface, which will leave a natural space if the ice covers the rest.
2. Tidy and prepare your soil
Now’s the time to seize the day and clear up weedy beds ready for mulching. Once you have removed fallen leaves, these can be added to the compost heap. When preparing your beds for next spring, order bulky organic matter (e.g. well-rotted farmyard manure or mushroom compost) for use as a soil improver or mulch.
This will prevent plants such as Helleborus niger (Christmas rose) looking dishevelled, having been splashed with muddy raindrops. Bark chip mulch will also help to reduce this splashing effect, and cloches can always be used where practical.
To ensure that soil remains healthy through winter, cover areas of bare soil with bedding plants or mulch, making use your hands are protected using SHOWA and SKYTEC gloves. A bare patch of soil is vulnerable to erosion and loss of richness. A plant’s roots conduct exchanges with soil organisms; exuding sugars and compounds, for a variety of minerals and nutrients. In addition, the physical presence of plants will prevent the soil eroding and leaching nutrients when exposed to the elements.
Green manures will make a living cover for your soiled surfaces, sustaining soil life for the duration of the winter months. Secale cereale (common rye) is good for soil structure and overwinters well. Or perhaps try Vicia faba (broad bean) which can be left after sowing for two or three months (or until it flowers) and is good for heavy soils. Green manures will work particularly well in your vegetable plot but each of these living manures will bring different benefits for your garden, so consider which will be best for you.
3. Prune your fruit trees
Pruning should be carried out when the tree is dormant—usually between November and early March, between leaf fall and bud burst. To prune your fruit trees, firstly, always use sharp secateurs, loppers and a pruning saw, as blunt tools can lead to strains.
Start by removing weak, dead, diseased, or damaged branches. Then, shorten the previous year’s growth on each main branch by about one third to a bud facing in the right direction. Leave side-shoots from being pruned so they can develop fruit buds.
Plum and other stone fruit trees are generally pruned in the summer.
Winter pruning is mainly for apples, pears and quince and is completed in winter because it encourages vigorous growth the following spring.
So if you want new shoots, and more flowers (and therefore fruits), prune in winter. This will also give you a chance to see the overall shape and structure of your tree as there is no foliage to contest with when deciding which parts to keep and which to cut back.
If your tree hasn’t been pruned recently, reduce the height and range of any branches that have grown too large by cutting them back—ideally to an outward and upward-facing, lower-side branch.