Preparing for Christmas

We have bought our Christmas cards, ready to be written on dark evenings, but I am determined to spend the last autumn days in the garden (when it is not raining!) before the Christmas rush begins in our household. The garden is really starting to change now, with most of the leaves off the trees and the last of the perennials to cut back. I like to get as much done as possible before the beginning of December when thoughts turn to Christmas preparations and the dreaded ‘indoor jobs’ which usually mean decorating a room or fixing something! Leaving routine garden tasks until the New Year can sometimes be a problem with wet soil and bad weather making things take twice as long!

Time seems to have flown by this year - it definitely does as you get older - and I am already planning for next spring, with the allotment cropping programme to write and the last of the spring bulbs to go in this week. More Tulips have been purchased from Notcutts, to be planted in pots for the patio and I couldn’t resist picking up some white Anemone blanda and Scilla for the area by the dining room. At the moment, with plants jostling for space it is difficult to remember how much spring bulbs are appreciated filling the borders before perennials begin to grow and shrubs put on their green summer coats in May.

My raised beds have been built and I am looking forward to moving the salad crops from the allotment so that they are easier to harvest as we need them. I am hoping to grow some more Dahlias here as well and will be on the lookout for some of the miniature ‘pom pom’ varieties when they are in stock at Notcutts as tubers next spring. They are some of the best flowers for arrangements – the more they are cut the more they flower! The scented white Lilies that we have had in pots for years are also favourites of ours through the summer and I will be looking to add to these as well.

Christmas is fast approaching now and Notcutts will soon have their cut trees in stock in the outdoor planteria. We like to buy ours early and keep it in its net in the garden shed, well watered, until it is time to bring it into the house and decorate it. I love the strong pine scent of Norway Spruce but prefer the softer needles of the Fraser Fir, which is a narrower alternative to the Nordmann Spruce. Last year we had one of each but this year we are going away over Christmas, so will stick to one large tree for the lounge and if I have time a ‘twig tree’ using suitable branches from the garden to go in the dining room.

Twig trees are useful to show off ‘special’ decorations and over the years we have collected many, mainly from Notcutts who always have a unique range that we find irresistible!

No doubt on our frequent visits running up to Christmas we will be tempted again, whilst we are busy finding the perfect presents for friends and relatives!



Over the weekend we were lucky enough to visit Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire. I need not have worried that we had timed the trip too late for autumn colour – there was still plenty to enjoy and it was a lovely weekend exploring a part of the country that we seldom visit nowadays although I did spend some time nearby when I was at college many years ago!

Before we even arrived at the arboretum there were plenty of trees to enjoy as part of the landscape. Stately Beech and Oak trees stood as lone specimens in dry stone walled fields, with the room to spread their branches so that their aged profiles could be admired, glowing like golden beacons in the foggy light.

Elegant Birch trees with their distinctive white and grey bark and cascading twigs were still peppered with diamond shaped, golden leaves but were mostly admired for their twiggy, gracefully weeping silhouettes – ‘Lady of The Woods’ is a very apt common name for our native Betula pendula!

Poplars, reaching for the sky stood like sentries on field edges, planted as windbreaks to protect crops and greenhouses. Devoid of leaves, they stood naked except for the occasional bunch of Mistletoe growing high up in some of the trees.

Westonbirt itself has changed a lot since our last visit a long while ago. There is a visitor center and a swish new entrance with bar coded tickets which are swiped at a turnstile. The main paths have been hardened to cope with the increasing number of visitors – a good move in my book as it makes the whole experience much easier with young children, pushchairs or older citizens. There were dogs aplenty as it is a popular walking route at any time of the year and they can do no harm off the lead unless they decide on an altercation with another!

Westonbirt holds the National Collection of Japanese Maples and we were not too late to see many of these elegant plants in their dramatic autumn uniforms of molten gold or red. Planted in a sheltered area, partly shaded by deciduous Larch, these beautiful, long lived small trees were totally at home. Specimens ranged from the oldest that were several metres tall to more recently planted additions, still cosseted by rabbit guards, but showing the brilliance of colour that these plants are renowned for.

But the highlight of the visit for me was later in the walk after we had recovered from ‘Japanese Maple overload’. Walking back along a main path we came across a very old Plane tree, the gnarled mottled bark, as well as the girth size giving away its age. There were still plenty of butter yellow leaves on the tree, accentuating the dark outlines of the branches and the beauty of the shapes that they had created over many years. We both spent several minutes looking up into the tree’s canopy awed by the size and beauty as well as wondering how many animals and insects had made their home in this gargantuan plant through the years.

That was one of many memories that I will take away from the visit as well as the number of other people who were enjoying this beautiful place as much as we were.

We will definitely not leave the next visit so long!


Planting Winter Perennials 

The tidy up around the garden is now well underway. Leaves are falling thick and fast and must be removed from lawns and borders so that they do not rot and smother the grass or any small plants that may be beneath them. The compost heaps are filled to the brim each week but seem to sink very quickly again – good news for next year’s soil conditioning mulch!

The allotment has done well this summer despite the hot weather and the winter crops of Leeks, Parsnips and greens are all looking good. I have been busy cutting down the tops of spent crops and taking down my runner bean frame so that it can be stored in the shed until I need it next year. This job alone makes the plot look tidier and less dejected.

Digging has started – a first for me as I usually have to leave it until after Christmas but the weather has been reasonable and the soil not too wet. I am adding all of the spent crop waste to the bottom of the trenches and burying them with soil. This includes any oversized courgettes and beetroots that missed the harvest for chutney making! All of this waste will break down to make organic matter and improve the soil, along with well rotted manure which I can get from a friend who keeps horses!

It’s time to plant my Tulips now that November is here and cutting back more of the perennials in the back garden has meant that there are some patches of bare earth visible for them. Although they are planted deeply and with grit added to the soil for drainage, they do not overwinter well in the second season, so I replant each year and treat them as I would bedding plants. This autumn I have also planted Wallflowers and Forget Me Nots for a bright spring welcome!

Some of my perennials have made huge clumps and the Asters were stunning through the autumn with their brightly coloured daisies that look so good in a vase as well as the borders. I have cut these down now and lifted some of the more congested clumps, dividing them up with two forks and replanting young, vigorous pieces in groups for a good display next year. There were plenty of pieces left over to give to friends, plant in the cutting garden and pot up to give to the village fetes next summer.

As the garden changes over the next few weeks to stark silhouettes once the last leaves are whipped from the trees by autumn gales, there are several plants that stand out. The feather duster like plumes of Miscanthus grass stand well above the clumps of slender leaves and will do so through the winter undamaged by gales – ideal for our windy front garden! The whole plant fades out to straw colours and can be pruned to the ground in January before the new growth starts. There are also plenty of evergreens to enjoy through the winter months along with the sweetly scented flowers of Viburnum and Sarcococca.

And soon, early spring bulbs will be making an appearance, their leaves shyly poking through the soil and sitting in suspended animation until the warmth of the first spring sunshine coaxes them into flower and another gardening year begins.


Planting Winter Containers

Autumn is marching in now with some much needed rain for the gardens along with the first of the autumn winds – less appreciated by myself and the plants which, only a couple of weeks ago, were languishing in beautiful late summer sunshine!

However, it was getting far too dry to plant anything and now that the ground is softer, the last of my Daffodils are going in to extend the season as much as possible. I find planting bulbs a chore, but am always so glad that I make the effort each year for the spring show that results. The garden becomes a sea of lemon yellow, contrasting with the exotic looking blooms of the Camellias for a few weeks, before spring really kicks in and Tulips are a riot of colour along with the fresh greens of new leaves and the flowers of Forsythia and Ribes. Colour schemes go out of the window in spring and anything goes as the garden launches into life once again after the greyness of winter!

The dwarf Rhododendron yakushimanum has grown well in its big pot and has made a lovely mound of glossy leaves topped with thick flower buds that will smother the plant in blush coloured trusses of flowers next May. We have been very careful with the watering of the pots through the dry summer weather and they have benefitted from the extra care and feeding each week.

The Camellia ‘Jury’s Yellow’ is also full of buds ready to burst open and welcome the spring. I have planted some dwarf daffodils in pots and these will be placed with the Camellia as it begins to flower, creating a beautiful spring show in a shady corner on the patio where it can be seen from the house.

My Banana tree is looking a bit worse for wear after the strong winds. The beautiful sail like leaves have been shredded somewhat, but the plant will stay in its pot now for the winter so that I can bring it inside during the coldest months. Next year I will plant it in a part shaded border that gets plenty of moisture, near the house where it will get residual heat from the walls. The rootstock should be quite hardy if I protect it with a good mulch of compost, but I will be able to wrap the top in fleece as well for good measure!

Many of the Day Lilies in the garden have started to die back for the winter, so I am gently pulling off the leaves and adding them to the compost heap. The gaps that are appearing in the borders now will be filled with Tulips and spring bedding plants. I love the combination of Forget Me Nots and Tulips along with cherry scented Wallflowers which flower for so long in late spring. The shady, green and white borders are full of the beautiful dwarf Daffodil ‘Thalia’ which has made strong clumps over the last few years and is a picture in March along with the white Anemone blanda which is slowly naturalising itself.

For now, it’s back to raking leaves from the grass as they begin to fall fast, and looking forward to some autumn colour in more sheltered spots!




The Narcissus ThaliaThe garden is looking quite tidy at the moment. Years of making our own compost and spreading it on the borders as mulch has helped to improve the soil, seal in moisture and keep the weeds down!
I have been busy planting bulbs over the last few weeks. Dwarf Daffodils have been put in under shrubs along with the electric blue Scilla siberica and the pristine white variety Scilla siberica alba. I love the tiny bulbs and corms such as the yellow Eranthus (Aconite) which naturalise happily in short grass along with Crocus, welcoming in the spring, flowers beaming in any weak sunshine.
Dwarf Iris are another favourite. Iris danfordae with its golden yellow flowers can be in bloom as early as the end of January in sheltered, sunny spots and are shortly followed by others such as the deep wine purple ‘J S Dijt’ and royal blue ‘Pauline’. They are such brave little plants, flowering so early in the year defying frost and light snowfall. The thick green buds push up from the centres of the plants and seem to appear overnight with a tempting glimpse of the colour to come. A couple of warm days and hey presto – they are in flower!  
I like to grow these little treasures in shallow terracotta pots and gritty soil; many of our borders are too shady and damp for them to do well in subsequent years after planting as they like to be baked in hot sun through the summer months, as do my favourites Tulips. 
It is still too early to plant my Tulips. They are best put in through November to reduce the risk of Tulip Fire which can distort the leaves and cause brown patches on them and the flowers. Sitting in wet, cold soil helps this disease to take hold so the later they are planted the better!
Now that the weather is cooler and deciduous plants are thinking about going into dormancy for the winter, it is time to start moving some of the shrubs to their new positions. From the end of this month until Christmas is an ideal time to do this. The plants will be under less stress once their leaves have fallen and the soil will still be warm enough for their roots to establish before the worst of the winter weather hits us. Who knows – we may have another mild winter!
I have started to dig out the planting holes and improve the soil with more compost ready to take the plants and I have also dug around the base of the shrubs to be moved with my garden spade to create a ‘root ball’. Ideally, the circle dug is the same width as the shrub and a spades depth. The shrubs that are to be moved are not that big yet, so they can be undercut when we move them to sever the main roots. Large plants and trees are often undercut in late spring and allowed to re-grow some fibrous roots through the summer months before they are moved in the following autumn.
Now it is a case of waiting for leaves to fall and enjoying the colours of autumn before I can move the plants to their new homes, make room for yet more, and enjoy another visit to Notcutts!