December is thankfully a short month. It may have 31 days but as some of it is lost in the excitement of Christmas there is not much time to do the last bits of winter tidying. Although we are in the first of the three winter months, winter does not really seem to take hold until the new year.
The garden is more or less dormant now except for those odd gems such as snowdrops which insist on flowering at the bleakest time of year. This phase of plant dormancy gives the perfect opportunity for those jobs that you cannot undertake when plants are growing hard: deep digging in the vegetable patch and pruning shrubs and trees are obvious candidates.
I find it gloriously therapeutic digging over vegetable beds. One is outside in the cold but glowing with warmth from the effort. You know the task is worthwhile making a big difference to productivity and when you are done there is something decent to show for your exertions. Two best bits: you have time to notice nature especially any wild birds that arrive to grab exposed worms etc and the feeling of tired, well-used muscles that have had a decent workout.
Plants grow! So, once you have had a garden for a few years, the plants enlarge and spread, getting crowded, losing their shapes and overshadowing neighbours. Smaller plants can be divided or moved but woody plants need pruning. Annual pruning of roses and fruit trees is essential to keep them in check and not encroach beyond their allotted space. The ritual of cutting back to just above a bud works because, being left at the end of the newly cut branch, the dormant bud will burst into life when spring dawns. It works for roses, fruit and much else. The good gardener can choose where to cuts and encourage a new shoot to develop and grow: up, down or right or left. You can make a narrow plant spread, a spreading plant grow taller and climbers sent their shoots where the trellis or wall needs them. And it works.
As always watch and learn. When you are picking roses, gooseberries or apples next year, look carefully at the growth that followed your winter pruning. It will help you understand how pruning controls the shape and direction of travel of shoots (I hope).
More brutally, now is the time for radical pruning of over-grown trees and shrubs. I have an overgrown red hazel and a glorious Garrya, just about to launch its long racemes. Both are over 20ft tall and grow from woody clumps; stools, I think. By March, they will both be reduced to under a foot high ready to re-grow, hopefully invigorated. This is classic old-fashioned coppicing. Sometimes branches of trees or shrubs simply get too big and need hacking or amputating; this is the time to do it. Heavy duty loppers, pruning saws or bigger bow-saws should make light work of it and test a few underutilized muscles. The wood you cut will be full of sap and wet so the ideal saw will have fewer, bigger teeth to clear the debris and avoid the sappy sawdust clogging.
The armchair gardener has plenty to do with no sense that he should be outside. Seed and plantlet catalogues keep arriving and there is the annual crop of glossy, coffee-table garden books to inspire us to greater gardening achievement in 2019. West Dean Gardens, near Chichester is a gem of a garden with a theme of education and demonstration. Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain have transformed it over the last 27 years with walled gardens, greenhouse, vegetable gardens, virtuoso trained fruit trees and a 100-metre pergola to covert. Their book, At West Dean: The Creation of an Exemplary Garden, is on my wishing list. And the Gardening Club has a coach outing there on 22 June 2019.
Happy Gardening for 2019, Giles Derry
Dates for your diary
Tuesday 15 January 7.30pm in Chieveley Village Hall. Keeping hens in your garden. Charlotte Popescue will be telling us about the joys of having a few hens and eating the freshest yellowest eggs. Do join us. Guests and non-members (both £2) are always welcome.