The weather’s been pretty unkind these last few weeks – often freezing cold, frequently blustery and without exception WET. I’ve put off a load of little jobs out in the garden, and there are planting plans for perennials I’ve had to shelve until spring, as our London clay is just too claggy and waterlogged. Normally I’d happily put in perennials until mid-November at least, but not this year. And it’s not just the soil in flowerbeds I’m thinking of. With this much wet, unless you’re planting from a hard surface such as a path or patio, the constant to-ing and fro-ing over sodden lawns will compact your turf, too, giving you trouble later on. You’ll have more moss in your lawn, hard, cracked and dry soil in summer and poor grass growth as a result.
So many leaves
One thing I’m not too worried about are leaves on the flowerbeds. The benefits of leaf litter are many, keeping soil warmer in winter (so protecting your plants a little from frost), locking in moisture (not that we need it right now, but come summer, with any luck…) and, in time, as worms process leaves and they decompose, they will improve soil fertility and drainage. Free soil improvement, in fact. If leaves have drifted into deep piles or they’re smothering my plants, I do clear them away to let in light and air. I also try to rake up most of the fallen leaves on my lawn, otherwise it just turns into a soggy mess of grass with bald patches.
The RHS reckons the best leafmould comes from oak, beech and hornbeam, as their leaves break down easily. Sadly, I have none of these in my garden so I can’t be too picky, although I do reject stray sycamore leaves from neighbouring trees, as they take an age to decompose. I pop the leaves into black bin bags, puncture them a few times with a garden fork and stash them behind the shed. In a year or two the leaves rot down to become gorgeous crumbly leafmould. Apparently you can use really good leafmould for seed sowing compost, but I usually treat it as mulch or dig it in as a soil improver when planting perennials and shrubs. Either way it returns nutrients to the soil and improves drainage.
Making a raised veg bed
Another project I have planned, weather permitting, for the coming weeks, is rebuilding a couple of raised beds in my vegetable garden. They’ve been in for over 10 years now and some of the timber is starting to crumble, so they need replacing. I love them, especially for growing fruit and veg. They warm the soil quickly in spring, giving me an extended planting season and earlier crops; they’re far easier on the back for weeding, sowing and harvesting; and they’re a simple way to get around being on clay soil as I can fill them with garden compost, manure or whatever else I fancy. I’ll use pressure-treated timber, cut to length and drilled together for the sides (don’t make them too wide or access can be tricky – mine are about 1 metre square), with wooden stakes hammered into the corners and screwed in.
Some Christmassy cheer in a pot
I’m planning a beautiful Christmassy pot to put by my front door. Maybe an elegant long tom pot as a starting point for something cheery, like a handsome box, bay or yew pyramid or lollipop , underplanted with some colourful winter bedding such as deep-claret pansies or red cyclamen. A bit of trailing ivy will set it off to perfection – and I might even dig out some twinkly red lights to festoon it with.
Another container combination I’ve been dreaming up is a really big glazed pot (burgundy if possible), filled with skimmia, Viburnum tinus ‘Eve Price’ , red cyclamen, red Japanese bloodgrass and purple-leaved ajuga. Those lovely mulled wine tones will cheer up a winter patio no end and really help get me in a festive mood.
And top of my Christmas wish list…
I’ve decided I’d like a tree for Christmas. I’ve been admiring a friend’s winter-flowering cherry for some years now, and think I’ve finally dreamt up a space for it in my garden.
Here’s why I’m so keen:
Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’, or winter-flowering cherry
In a nutshell
This hardy broad, spreading deciduous tree can grow to 8 x 8 metres in height and spread, though it rarely gets quite that tall.
Why do I want it?
There are so many reasons! It’s relatively small, so there’s a space for it in all but the tiniest gardens (mine’s a typical London terraced garden, long and narrow); it flowers in flushes from November all the way through to March, with a delicate scattering of pale pink blossoms, unlike the showier spring-flowering cherries; it has pretty bronze spring leaves and lovely orange/yellow autumn colour. Because its branches form an airy canopy, it won’t cast a huge amount of shade over other plants in the garden.
It needs a sunny spot, but because its roots are shallow it may not look so great on a lawn. To encourage deeper rooting, it’s best planted in a large square hole in decent fertile soil.
Any good planting combinations?
How will I look after it?
It shouldn’t need much TLC, although any crossing, dead or diseased branches should be pruned in summer.
What about pests and diseases?
Pruning on a dry day in summer reduces the risk of bacterial canker and silver leaf.
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer
P.S. Get your Christmas tree from us, order online and get it delivered direct to your door (free delivery as well)