Christmas gardening jobs

December is a quiet time in the garden caught between the clear-up of autumn and the busy seed-sowing of spring.

Yet there are still some things that need to be done and what better way to escape the festive frenzy than to ‘disappear’ outside for a while.

Here are some gardening jobs that will while away a few hours over the Christmas break.

Look sharp

Now’s a good time to overhaul your gardening tools – and the potting shed. Make sure trowels, forks, spades and secateurs are cleaned of last season’s grime, blades are sharpened and wooden handles treated with linseed oil for protection.

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Now’s the time to get tools ready

It’s worth putting up some hooks or shelves for storage; there’s nothing worse than wasting time hunting for something.

Check you’ve got enough twine, labels and other gardening bits and pieces now rather than waiting until you need them in the spring.

Plan ahead

If you’re anything like me, you have boxes stuffed with seed packets. Some empty, some half-full. Sorting it out is one of those gardening jobs that pays dividends. Go through and check the sow-by dates; quite a lot will keep but some things – notoriously parsnip, sweetcorn and lettuce – rarely germinate well a second year.

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Get your seeds sorted

Be ruthless. It’s so easy to hang on to something you are never likely to grow (often a ‘free gift’ from a gardening mag). If the seed is still good, why not donate it to a local school, swap it at a garden club or allotment group, or see if there is a Seedy Saturday event near you?

Make a list of what you want to grow and what you need to buy – make sure you include something new. Experimenting is one of the joys of gardening.

Don’t be caught out

British winters are notoriously hard to predict. One year we could be inches deep in snow, the next basking in balmy temperatures. Either way, don’t get caught out.

In the midst of Christmas, it’s easy to neglect those ‘out of sight, out of mind’ plants but it pays to keep a close eye on things in greenhouses and cold frames.

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Keep an eye on things that are seeing out the winter under cover

Make sure heaters are working and that lagging is sufficient. Check that overwintering plants don’t need watering; the recent warm spell has seen things in my greenhouse near wilting. Remove any dying leaves to prevent the spread of disease.

On warmer days, open up the cold frame or greenhouse door for a while to allow air to circulate.

Don’t forget to check for other residents: snails love the shelter of greenhouses and it’s a good idea to regularly check staging and corners.

Look out for pots

If you’ve got pots of bulbs tucked away waiting for their moment of glory in spring, make sure they are in top condition. Lag them with bubble wrap, or move into a more sheltered spot if temperatures drop. Standing them on ‘feet’ will ensure good drainage and help them shrug off winter wet and frost.

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Pots of bulbs are already showing signs of life

I grow mine – including tulips, Iris reticulata and hyacinths, in a corner of the garden and move them into the ‘spotlight’ just as they start to flower. Some are already starting to appear through the soil and will need regular checks to make sure I don’t miss the right moment to show them off.

Help your friends

Keep putting out food for the birds and they will repay you by helping to clear up pests later in the year.

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Old sunflower heads have been feeding the birds

Make sure there is fresh water and disinfect bird tables every so often to help prevent disease.

Bring the outdoors in

If you have one of the wonderfully scented winter shrubs, why not cut a small piece to bring indoors? The winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), mahonia and winter box will all scent a room.

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Winter honeysuckle has a wonderful lemon fragrance

Alternatively, if you haven’t planted early hyacinths or ‘Paperwhite’ narcissi, pick up a pot from a local nursery or garden centre and make a note to plant some yourself next autumn. They are the best antidote to the January blues and help to solve that suddenly bare look when the Christmas decorations come down.

Take time out

One of the hardest things for a gardener to do is to stop and appreciate what they have. It is so easy to see what needs doing – weeding, pruning, digging – rather than what you have achieved.

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Fat hellebore buds are full of promise

So as well as the gardening jobs, take the time to walk around your garden and see what’s already on the move. Snowdrops, hellebores and crocus are just some of the things that are starting to appear in my garden. 2017 is already full of promise.

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It won’t be long before the snowdrops are in bloom

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Tackling the roses at Sudeley

Climbing onto the rose bed, secateurs in hand, I suddenly feel a little nervous. It’s said you can’t be too harsh when pruning roses but that’s of little comfort when they are not yours. I am about to tackle some of the bushes in Sudeley Castle’s centrepiece Queens’ Garden and I don’t want to get it wrong.

Luckily, talking me through it is Jess Hughes, one of the four-strong gardening team, who demonstrates how they prune to get the best display and then watches as I start on the first one.

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A few late roses linger in the Queens’ Garden

The secret, she says, is to remove the three Ds – dead, diseased and damaged stems – any stems that are crossing another and then cut back to an outward-facing bud to give an open, goblet-shaped bush. Anything thinner than a pencil is cut right back, the rest is lightly trimmed; the gardeners, led by head gardener Stephen Torode, are experimenting with whether to prune the roses lightly or hard.

I am helping with the long winter task of tidying and shaping the nearly 500 roses in the garden, named for the four Queens who have walked there: Katherine Parr, Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I.

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Sudeley is steeped in history

It’s not ideal gardening weather with occasional light drizzle and low cloud that almost touches the 150-year-old yews enclosing the rose garden but, if anything, it adds to the almost ethereal feel of the place. With the castle as a backdrop and its historical links – Sudeley was once the home of Katherine Parr, one of Henry VIII’s more fortunate wives – this is a place of romance and I am lucky enough to experience it when it is closed to the public.

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Decades-old topiary is one of the features

I’ve been seconded to the gardening team at Sudeley, at Winchcombe near Cheltenham, as part of an experience run by Worcestershire-based Humdinger Days. The chance to garden at the award-winning site – either for a half or full day – is just one of the experiences, which range from learning to joust to spending the day as a leatherworker.

“We helping people achieve things they’ve always wanted to do,” explains Liz Davis, who founded the company with her son, Jordan.

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Katherine Parr is entombed in the 15th century church

The firm offers a ‘bucket list option’ so that friends and family can club together to fund something and will tailor-make experiences to fit individual’s dreams. They also provide a personal concierge for each client to make sure everything runs smoothly.

The Sudeley experience is, says Liz, ideal for anyone with an interest in gardening.

“You are working with the professionals and learning as well as having a memorable experience.”

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Pruning vines could be one of the tasks carried out

With 10 different gardens at the castle, the tasks could include anything from edging lawns, raking leaves, dead-heading or weeding; each experience would include a mixture of things and there’s the chance to quiz the gardeners and pick up tips; I’m intrigued to see piles of melianthus leaves dotted along the East Border. It turns out they are forming a protective blanket for the plants, which the team have left in the ground rather than lifting and storing over winter.

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Melianthus leaves protect the crown of the plant over winter

As well as pruning roses, I’m helping Jess and her colleague Will Thake with bulb-planting; the other member of the Sudeley team is Pete May.

While the castle has always had tulips and other spring bulbs, this season it’s being done on a massive scale with 40,000 bulbs ranging from narcissi and crocus to alliums and colchicums.

“This year we’re adding early spring and end of season interest,” says Jess.

We are planting Narcissi ‘Double Campenella’ in grass alongside the banqueting hall ruins where it’s hoped they will naturalise. The heavy clay soil makes bulb planters difficult to use so the gardeners make the planting holes with metal poles. The narcissi are left uncovered until all are planted so that there’s an even spread and no danger of plunging the pole through an already planted bulb.

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Jess and Will planting with the help of metal poles

It’s slow, methodical work but each bulb – many already showing signs of shoots – holds out the promise of spring. I for one will be visiting to see how my work turns out.

For more information on Humdinger Days see here

For details of Sudeley Castle’s gardens and opening dates see here

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The trials of gardening

As a gardening journalist, I’ve long been given plants, seeds and bits of kit to test in my own plot. Some are established favourites with growers, others things firms are keen to promote, occasionally it’s a variety so new it has yet to be named and it comes with just a reference number. Gardening trials are a great way to discover new things and push the boundaries of what you grow.

This season has seen me raising everything from cosmos to cabbage and testing a peat-free compost. There have been a few disappointments and one or two surprises.

Star plant

Possibly the stand-out plant of the year was Petunia ‘Night Sky’ from Thompson & Morgan (pictured above) mainly because I really didn’t expect to like it. I have a love-hate relationship with petunias. On the one hand, they are a useful summer bedder for containers but they need a lot of dead-heading to look good – something I find a horribly sticky job.

‘Night Sky’ seemed even less likely to appeal as I expected the white-splashed dark purple blooms to be a bit garish.

In fact, I rather grew to like them. The purple had a velvety sheen to it and the white splashes gave them a cheerful rather than comical look.

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Cosmos ‘Xanthos’ proved a winner

I put them in a pot with Cosmos ‘Xanthos’, also supplied by Thompson & Morgan. Launched in 2015, it has pale yellow flowers that fade at the edges and a darker, golden centre. The plants are dwarf, making them ideal for containers.

If there was a problem with them, it’s deadheading, as the flowers are packed onto the stems, making it difficult to snip off spent blooms without accidentally removing flower buds.

There were a few plants over after I filled my container so I put them in some spare ground I had in one of the borders. Expectations were low as it’s one of the shady spots but the cosmos performed well, flowering happily in the semi-shade.

Surprising success

Cabbage was another surprise in this year’s gardening trials. It’s not something I usually bother to grow. Brassicas are fraught with difficulty thanks to cabbage whites and the garden’s resident wood pigeons – there’s only so much ground you can net – and I prefer to use precious space for something that’s a bit more unusual and difficult to buy, such as cavolo nero.

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I really liked this cabbage

However, with a packet of ‘Gunma’ seed from Marshalls, I decided I might as well give cabbage a go. I limited the trial to half-a-dozen plants and began to wish I’d grown more. The cabbages are tightly packed, crunchy and with a good flavour. Definitely one to repeat.

Blight blues

Tomatoes are a family favourite and one of my main crops; I generally grow about six different varieties, ranging from cherry type to large Italian varieties for cooking.

This year, I was asked by Suttons to grow ‘Crimson Crush’ as part of my gardening trials. Billed as 100 per cent blight resistant, it is a cordon variety producing large fruit.

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‘Crimson Crush’ tomatoes were the first to fruit

Did Suttons know something? For the first time in years my garden, along with those all around, succumbed to a bad attack of blight. And yes, the ‘Crimson Crush’ fell victim along with the other varieties. That said, it was among the last to get it.

What was noticeable was that in a poor growing season – the tomatoes set badly and very late – ‘Crimson Crush’ was the first to fruit, producing weeks before some of the others, both in the greenhouse and outdoors. It wasn’t my favourite to eat raw, but that’s just personal taste as I prefer smaller, sweeter varieties. However, it’s size does mean that it’s not too fiddly to cook with.

Compost testing

The blight rather curtailed another of my gardening trials: peat-free compost from Dalefoot. I had been growing a few tomato plants in my ordinary peat-free mix and a few in Dalefoot’s new ‘Wool Compost for Vegetables and Salads’.

The Dalefoot range, from Cumbria, combines sheep’s wood and bracken, both renewable resources, and claims to cut the need to water by up to half, while providing a steady release of nutrients.

What I did find, before the tomato plants bit the dust, was that those grown in the Dalefoot product were significantly bigger than their counterparts, with exactly the same watering and feeding regime.

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Dalefoot composts are made from wool and bracken

I tried the ‘Double Strength Wool Compost’ on a couple of my veg beds to see if it would improve the free-draining, sandy soil. It’s a difficult thing to judge, but certainly the squash fared better there, the sweetcorn grew strongly and the soil had a better texture.

Finally, the ‘Wool Compost for Seeds’ was easy to use and produced good germination. I particularly liked its lump-free texture, quite different from other peat-free composts I’ve encountered. Had I been more organised, I would have tested it against the same seed sown in a different medium but sometimes life’s just too busy.

If there’s a drawback, it’s the price. At £10.99 plus delivery for a 30L bag of the standard ‘Wool Compost’, if you order 2-11 bags, it’s not a cheap option. Prices do drop, the more you order – perhaps with a group of friends or through a gardening club – but it could be too expensive for those on a tight budget. It is also stocked in some garden centres, which would take the delivery charge out of the equation and it could be mixed with home-produced compost to eke it out.

A disappointing dish

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The ‘Egg & Chips’ spud harvest

Possibly the most disappointing thing in the gardening trials was unsurprisingly, Thompson & Morgan’s ‘Egg & Chips’ plant, an aubergine grafted onto a potato. Despite being mollycoddled in the greenhouse, it produced just one aubergine and a handful of spuds. Not bad until you consider the £14.99 price tag for the 9cm grafted plant. Definitely in the gimmicky but not a serious contender category.

Planning for spring

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A white pumpkin is on next season’s list

So much for 2016. I’m already looking ahead to the next growing season and new gardening trials. A spotty nasturtium, courgette and pea suitable for containers, two-tone tomato and white pumpkin are already lined up for the gardening trials.

I’ve also just planted up pots using a new planting collection – ‘Winter Wonder Gro Thru’ – put together by Unwins containing a mixture of tulips, crocus and grape hyacinths.

The bulbs are packaged in three ‘bulb pads’ designed to make the planting quicker and easier. All you do is put a layer of compost in a pot, put in the first pad, add more compost and so on, finishing with the viola plugs that come with the kit. The pads are numbered and even tell you which way up to place them in the container.

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Bulb pads make the planting easy

I’m not sure if this will appeal to experienced gardeners as it limits your choice and ‘bulb pads’ seem unnecessary for what isn’t a particularly difficult job. However, at £19.95 for enough to fill two pots, it’s reasonably priced. There is also a ‘Spring Fireworks’ version, which has narcissi, Dutch iris, chionodoxa and pansies.

It’s all in the soil

Finally, I will be trying out a new compost accelerator and a soil improver that have been launched recently by SoilFixer.

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SoilFixer’s compost humification agent

The Northumberland-based company claims that compost made with its activator will double crop growth and yield, while the ‘SF60 Super Soil Improver’ is said to greatly improve water retention while adding important nutrients. My lightweight soil sounds the ideal testing ground.

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