The days are almost at their shortest and the mercury has plummeted, but even in a brisk December there are a few things you can do in the garden to keep you warm and get ahead of the game ready for next year.
Your December gardening to do list:
Prune deciduous trees and shrubs
I used to work in the UK legal sector defending, amongst other things, claims brought by individuals who had suffered injury or property damage arising from trees, or their branches, falling. The legal liability threshold at the time of private garden owners in the UK was relatively low and all that was legally required of a knowledgeable garden owner was to undertake regular preliminary/informal visual checks from the ground. Only if this preliminary check alerted the landowner to a potential problem with the health of the tree did a responsibility arise to investigate further and take steps to remedy the problem (such as by engaging an arboriculturalist, or tree surgeon).
Given the particularly dry summer the European continent has experienced the past few years, particularly this past summer when drought conditions reigned from May through to October, trees and shrubs have been under considerable stress. Some have not made it through, as I have seen in my own garden.
I do not yet know what the legal position is in France (help deciphering impenetrable French legal code is more than welcome!), but simply for peace of mind, your safety and that of your family and friends using your garden consider walking around your garden to conduct a visual check of trees from the ground. Now is perhaps the easiest time of year to undertake this exercise as leaf cover is no longer inhibiting a clear view of any disease, dieback or damage that may be apparent. Another good time to be checking trees and shrubs is early summer; any branches that are not in full leaf by that time should be investigated further (they may very well be dead or dying) and pruned out if appropriate.
By now the leaves have all fallen and deciduous trees are dormant. If you have any deciduous trees or shrubs that require pruning, for many of them now is the optimal time. Always when pruning, before doing anything else, first consider the ‘Three d’s’; Dead, Damaged & Diseased. Remove any branches that you see that fall into this category.
Next, consider removing any inwardly growing or crossing branches that are likely to rub together. Wounds are a disease entry point.
Finally, consider aesthetics and remove any branches as you see fit to improve the overall balance/shape of the plant. You could undertake crown raising to raise the canopy, if appropriate.
Except for perhaps the three D’s and rubbing branches, trees and shrubs that are grown primarily for their winter stem colour, such as cornus, willow or limes, should be left well alone until the end of winter.
If you are inexperienced in pruning, the tree/shrub is tall requiring work at height, or you are concerned there might be a problem with the plant’s overall health consider engaging a professional to help you.
Mature Wisteria can be a beast to deal with in summer. It can be extremely difficult to see and access all of the tendrils that you will need to remove as part of your summer wisteria pruning regime.
Now the leaves have fallen and you can see clearly remove any unwanted growth you might have missed. Prune these tendrils, and your earlier summer pruning points back to just three on each ‘spur’. Fewer buds per spur, in theory, concentrates the plants energies into those fewer buds and thus gives bigger and better flowers in spring.
Undertake any necessary tying in adjustments whilst you are at it to make sure the plant is trained, secure and storm proof. Tie in any tendrils you do wish to train into the structure.
If you are inexperienced or need help with wisteria training and pruning, please get in touch here.
Plant bare root trees and shrubs
Bare root trees and shrubs are suitable for late autumn/winter planting only. They are typically much cheaper than their container grown counterparts. Some believe they can also be faster to establish and grow on.
If you need help sourcing and planting the correct tree or shrub for your plot, please get in touch here.
Mulch cleared and unused vegetable beds in the potager
Mulch any beds being left empty over winter with compost or manure, especially if they are going to be used for root crops, such as parsnips or carrots. This will give the organic matter sufficient time to break down in the soil and reduce the chances of ‘forking’ (which results in edible, but rather peculiarly shaped root veggies). More generally, it will help prepare them in advance of spring so that you are all ready to go when the time comes and will help to keep annual weeds at bay in the meantime.
Clear the tool shed
Get rid of any tat and dirt that has accumulated over the course of the past year. Reorganise shelves and install a hanging system to keep your tools readily accessible and organised if you don’t already have one.
Clean any unbroken pots (including plastic) for reuse. Keep any broken terracotta pots for future crock (drainage) material.
Use this opportunity to sort through your seed collection and discard any seeds that are past their use by date. Seed that is out of date will have a low germination rate, if any at all.
Maintain hand tools
Manufacturers recommend blades are sharpened after every use, but there isn’t always time for that and life often gets in the way. Perhaps counter intuitively, sharper blades are more safe to work with. Well performing tools really do make gardening a joy rather than a chore. Use this quieter time in the garden to clean your tools, hone any dulled blades or edges and bring them back to their former glory. For detailed information on maintaining your cutting tools see here.
Clean mud from your spades and forks etc, it can cause the metal to rust and wood to rot. Soak the tools in hot soapy water or scrub with a wire brush, if the mud is dried on. Again, sharpening the blade of spades can make digging less arduous. Apply oil with an old rag to protect the metal from rust. Give all wooden handles a rub with sandpaper and wipe them down with linseed oil. For detailed information on tool maintenance see here.
Build a composter
Reuse all the cuttings from your winter and early spring pruning activities by adding them to the compost. If you don’t yet have a composter, now is a great time to build one.
Drain fuel from your mower and other petrol machines. Give the machines a good oiling and clean while you are at it. Sharpen the cutting blade, or replace it altogether if it is blunted beyond repair. For further information see here. Check spark plugs and filters and clean/replace where necessary.
Tackle any structural issues
Now the leaves have fallen and foliage died back you can see more clearly what needs to be done. Perhaps the decking needs cleaning and a non-slip protector applied? Does that fence panel need replacing before a winter storm takes it out completely causing even more damage? Or perhaps you have a collapsed dry stone wall you’ve been meaning to repair for quite some time? January and February are the coldest months in the Poitou-Charentes. Now may be your last chance before the arrival of spring to undertake any mortaring of slabs, walls or coping.
Merry Christmas/Joyeux Noel to you all.
Can you recommend any gardening jobs typically done in the Poitou-Charentes this time of year? Do you have a particular job in the garden this time of year you look forward to? Are there any topics you might like to see covered in this blog in particular?
If you require any assistance with tree, shrub or wisteria pruning, plant support, decking, fence or dry stone wall repair, please contact us here.