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Garden Life – December 2020 – Gill Ford

One particular Robin is my constant companion in the garden and I love it when he sings to me and I talk back to him – fortunately no-one overhears me chattering away about the wrongs and rights of the world! Robins follow humans around the garden, so they can eat the bugs that we reveal when raking leaves and digging up the last of the veggies. Even though there is no digging to be done now, I still love to wrap up warmly and wander around the garden, smelling the few scented flowers, listening to the rustling of birds foraging amongst the leaves and peeking under a leaf or two, to see if a brave bulb has popped up. The earliest bulbs are Nivalis or snowdrops, which often appear towards the end of December, if it is not too cold. Also, it is well worth having some Helleborus niger or Christmas rose, as they often flower this month, and their flowers are such a treat. As the flowers hang down, it’s a good idea to trim some of the large leaves back, to reveal the delicate blooms.

By December, the deciduous trees and shrubs have shed their leaves and we can see the bare structure of the garden and start to plan what changes are needed to make the garden even better next year. There are various ideas about what the percentage of evergreens/deciduous plants should be but I usually try to use 30% evergreens, 30% coloured bark, such as cornus, salix and acers and 40% deciduous and herbaceous plants. Beth Chatto was a wonderful plants-woman, garden designer and author and she developed the concept of creating flower beds which mirrored the shape of a town scene, with the plants representing tall church spires, town halls, office blocks, etc., as I have shown in the drawing opposite.

It is a great concept, as you can play with plants of different shapes and sizes, evergreens and variegated bush es, coloured bark and underplanting with smaller plants. If the flower bed is deep enough then I divide it up into heights of plants but planting some medium sized ones towards the front of the bed, so your eyes move along seeing some little surprises and hidden gems behind the larger specimens. I normally measure the bed and then sketch out the different heights that I want in the design, then start to explore the plants to fit. Andy Mcindoe’s book ‘The Creative Shrub Garden’ is excellent for ideas but do also check the height and width that the plants will grow to – as I have made a number of mistakes, as you can see from the Prunus in my picture, which grew to twice the height that I had expected!

I lost a number of plants last year because of the intense heat and drought, so I am having great fun choosing replacements. I tend not to buy plants until March because the ground will be too cold to allow new specimens to flourish. I am trying to recycle plants around the garden, growing my own plants from cuttings and seeds and reducing the number of annuals, in order to garden more sustainably. Monty Don has got himself into ‘hot water’ with some of his comments but we do have to realise that our climate is changing and we do need to garden in a more sustainable way.

Lastly the good news is that from 21 December the days will be getting longer and so we can spend more time wandering in the garden, looking for little surprises, smelling the tiny little flowers and smiling at the fun that really will spring up again over the next few months.

I do wish you all a happy and healthy Christmas.

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