It’s cold. It’s wet. It must be December.

by Ken C | Last Updated: 01/12/2021

Most people turn off to their gardens at this time of the year but gardens never stop growing, evolving, and giving pleasure. To think that under the soil bulbs roots and shoots are growing to give glorious shows in spring.

Winter Flowering Shrubs

Winter flowering shrubs are always in my opinion very underestimated, sometimes planted too far away from the house, and as many of us rarely wander around the garden at this time of the year plant so you can see them.

One of my favorite still is Lonicera fragrantissima (winter flowering honeysuckle) and Osmanthus burkwoodii are also fragrant, the latter is evergreen but the Lonicera is pretty boring the rest of year as it is deciduous, and the leaves in summer are just green.

We mustn’t rule out some other great winter flowerers, Viburnum Bodnantense, and Chimonanthus. These can be found via the web and that way you will see a picture and description but remember if you want larger plants you, might have to go to a Nursery or Garden Centre.

Always try and prepare the soil first where you are going to plant and I always add in a Soil Improver which helps the plant to establish. Then use a tree and shrub compost to plant with, this does not mean just digging a hole throwing in compost, and plonk the shrub in.

No, mix the compost with the surrounding soil and after placing the plant you have carefully taken from the pot, tease any matted roots from the edge of the root ball, check the best side of the plant faces out, and then in with the plant and backfill around it with the mix of soil and compost. Firm in around the plant using the heel of your boot, and there you have it. Done.

We hear all the time about improving our ‘Green Credentials’ and where better to start than in the garden.

Container planting trees in a small garden

Let’s think about planting trees. You might say, “no, I have a too smaller garden”. If that’s the case, grow them in tubs and pots. Yes, you can grow trees in pots! Although, just the other day, I heard on Gardeners Question Time that they thought plants like that became tatty in containers.

I disagree, providing you look after them.

Start with a good-sized container, and see that it has drainage. Next, use a good compost/ I like to use a John Innes No 3 mixed with a multipurpose compost about half and half, this will give the tree or shrub a good start and will last for many years.

Over the year a container permanent planting will need regular feeding, I like to use slow-release capsules in spring and then add a supplement of liquid manure like Maxicrop at monthly intervals if a flowering plant alternate with a tomato feed like Tomorite.

Every other year scrape down around the plants in winter and don’t worry if you get down to the roots and then add more John Innes No 3 to top them up. If you are not keen on using slow release fertiliser add blood, fish and bone, but I find it often can attract foxes to the garden. Alternatively, liquid fertiliser can be made from Cumfrey or dung in a sack left to soak in an old water container.

So get planting from Oaks to Acers to Amelanchier and Abelia all making a great show on a patio.

Planning tree planting in a larger garden

So we have chatted about getting you to plant trees in containers and tubs if you haven’t got big gardens but if you have got land, plant trees for the future generations.

Now back in 1963 there was a tree campaign “Plant a Tree in 63“ followed by “Plant some more in 64“ I was trying to think of a slogan for 2021 but couldn’t come up with one…

If you are planting in groups of larger areas, mix the sizes as the smaller the tree the faster they establish and take off. In the corner of a large lawn or field, what about three 6 to 8ft high then some tallish whips at about three feet high, and then perhaps some three to four-year-old specimens at 18″? Planted quite close they will produce a small thicket and can be thinned as time goes on.

So get yourself a good spade like a Bulldog one which should last you for years, a club hammer to drive in the stakes, tree ties and planting compost, and off you go.

All of them will benefit from compost mixed with the soil at planting, staked if large, caned if smaller, and protected from rabbit with rabbit guards where necessary. Last but not least, to help them get going, keep clear of grass around the base of the tree to help them establish. The latter can often be carried out by adding a bark mulch around the tree, which is easily available.

The veg plot needs your love

Last month I went on a lot about vegetables, which I’m sure most of you will have ignored! Well here is another one you will most likely put off, and that’s clearing and tidying the veg plot.

On a nice dry day, why not venture out to the plot and clear off any big weed and spent crops and add them to the compost bin? And, if you have compost spread that on the plot and get digging. Dig roughly and see that you don’t use the spade to chop it down – let the weather do that for you.

A couple of fellow gardeners, Peter Seabrook and my friend Andrew Tokely, often sneak off to the veg plot over Christmas possibly to get out of any chores or even to work off all that eating and drinking that happens during this festive time.

Digging should never be a competition on how big a piece you can turn over or how quickly you can dig. Treat it asa relaxing jog, digging thin slithers of soil, and turning them gently upside down in front of you.

So go on do some exercise this Christmas.

Staying with Andrew Tokely’s vegetable plot, he has a fantastically well-kept plot that often wins him awards. His other Christmas job is to sow his large Onions. Yes, he sows from seed and doesn’t use setts!

When I interviewed him for WorldRadioGardening, he was producing onions that were massive and 2lb in weight. All action takes place in the greenhouse with compost already at the required temperature and in a seed tray, moistened (not soaked) seeds sown thinly and covered with vermiculite. Then it’s into a propagator set at 20 degrees Celsius and with a bit of luck, they will have germinated in about fourteen days.

I look forward again to catching up with Andrew soon. He can teach us all a lot about growing veg in the garden.

There’s still time to plant fruit bushes

I’m on about veg and growing a lot at this time of the year, but it is the best time to plant all those fruit bushes, just as I reminded you last month.

Whilst talking fruit, it reminds me of how we had at home a Laxton Superb apple tree which we picked in October – a great apple to eat, large and gets rich red and soft yellow. Mum used to eat an apple every morning which she peeled and ate so when the summer apples had finished she would start on the Layton’s.

We kept a couple of trays in the garage and the rest were wrapped in paper and, for those of who remember them, pages of telephone directories and put into wooden apple boxes or tomato trays and kept cool. By wrapping any rot would not move from one apple to the other, if not wrapped and you store them regular checks are so necessary.

My Mum was kept in apples from that tree right through to the start of the earlies, Discovery and Worcester and she lived till 103 years. Was it the apples?

I’m going to stay with fruit although technically it’s a vegetable, Rhubarb.

Let’s hope you pulled plenty and blanched and froze it ready for those winter pies and tarts with custard as well. Here’s a question for you. Have you tried adding Ginger to Rhubarb? If not, give it a go. It gives it an interesting kick.

Back in the day, my Dad and I had some big galvanised buckets and the like and we would put them over several crowns of rhubarb and push straw in and around the clump. Early spring we were having soft pink and tender sticks for Sunday lunches. Whatever you do, don’t leave the sticks on your Rhubard for too long or it’ll take too much strength from the crown.

Here’s my Rhubarb Top Tip: If you want to replant crowns lift the larger ones, cut them into two or maybe three making sure they have an eye or bud on, and then turn them upside down and leave out for the frost and then when they’ve been through a few frosty nights, plant them up.

Always plant Rhubarb with loads of organic manure or compost around them as they love it, and then mulch with similar material.

It’s December which means Christmas is almost upon us

Christmas would not be the same without a real growing tree – it’s good for the environment and thousands are grown across the country.

The best choice is a container-grown tree, but if you can’t find one, a cut tree placed in a stand with a water reservoir makes a great alternative. Yes, these trees are alive and need water just like a vase of flowers.

If you can find a container-grown tree, buy it and plant it up by the front door, light it up and you can keep it for future years.

The very last from me for this year is to suggest brightening your home during the festive season by cutting flowering shrubs from your garden. Prunus like cherries, forsythia, viburnums, even winter Jasmin to name a few, but experiment and pop in vases with some evergreens and enjoy your garden indoors.

Well, that’s it for December. In fact, that’s it for 2021. Thank you for following my blog this year, the weather wasn’t up to much and I hope you’ve found some of the advice helpful and inspired you to get out into the garden.

I hope you get to enjoy the Christmas break and don’t forget, we’ve got it all to do again next year!

Happy gardening.

Ken Crowther is an award winning broadcaster, author and member of the Chartered Institute of Horticulture. He has been gardening for over 50 years and his knowledge and experience are drawn on to provide advice and information about garden design, plants for all seasons, gardening techniques and gardening tips. Gardening with Ken's broad appeal means he reaches a wide audience across the UK from amateur gardeners to top level horticulturists.