Wrapping up for Christmas !
It is now winter proper, but only just.
So far, I have only had two meaningful frosts and the temperature has only recently persisted in single figures. The mild weather has had the usual effect of allowing some plants to continue flowering later through the year, but also tricking some plants into flowering early. Magnolias often flower a second time for example but this year I’ve seen apples flowering in late November which is a first for me! This mild spell has been useful as it has given me more opportunity to lift, divide and move plants about whilst the soil is still warm, the only downside is that the trees have stubbornly held on to their leaves. The oaks are only just becoming completely bare and this means clearing leaves over a longer period than some years. I always hope for a few frosts and a gale or two in November to speed things up! Clearing leaves can seem like a thankless task, with leaves falling on areas you have just cleared. But, especially on sandy soils, like those on the Hampshire/ Sussex borders where most of my work is, it’s the leaves that are more important than their clearance. The soils around Liphook, Petersfield and Haselmere are an acid sand, and without regular applications of huge amounts of organic matter they become leached of nutrients, loose their water holding capacity, and their ability to drain excess water.
Tied to these points but even more important in my mind they struggle to sustain the soil microorganisms that are critical to a successful garden. Every year more research seems to come out showing how critical the relationships are between plants and the soil biome. The most talked about symbiotic relationship is with mycorrhizal fungi. These are fungi that attach themselves to the roots of plants and feed on the sugars plants produce, and in exchange, they allow the plant access to their hyphae, the root like growth from which the familiar fruiting bodies, mushrooms for example emanate. The hyphae can cover huge areas and have commensurately large surface areas with which to take up water and nutrients. I remember at one point the largest known organism on the planet was a fungus in Alice Holt forest, presumably because that’s where the research was carried out. 92 % of plant families studied showed mycorrhizal relationships and some plants are absolutely dependant. Orchid seeds for example have no food stores and rely on their relationships with fungi to germinate. Most people have heard of mycorrhizal fungi because you can buy them as a powder to apply to the roots of usually woody plants at planting. They have been shown to increase the vigour and successful establishment of newly planted shrubs and trees. But critically these results are when planted in poor soils with limited soil life. If you look after your soil biome, you do not need it. The best way to encourage a vibrant soil biome is to feed it, and on really poor life depleted soils you’re also inoculating with live culture, which is where homemade composts really have the edge over bought in materials which tend to be more sterile. It is a bit of a panacea really, if you have poor drainage and suffer root rots over the wetter colder months, digging in compost will help. If your soil dries out in the summer and your plants look stressed then the addition of a organic matter to the soil makes a night and day difference to the water holding capacity of the soil whilst adding nutrients. Compost doesn’t have huge amounts of nitrogen generally so the growth it encourages tends to be less sappy and more substantial than inorganic fertilisers. This means the resultant growth is less susceptible to pests such as green fly who prefer tender growth. Some of the gardens I help with would be impossible without a yearly deep mulch of leaf mould and compost. I feel so passionately about this that I stopped reading Robin Lane Fox’s ‘Thoughtful Gardening’ after reading a rant about the pointlessness of organic mulches when chemical fertilisers are available. The books cover has a quote from a Financial Times review suggesting it’s the best gardening book for 30 years so perhaps I’m missing out. But it would have to be pretty spectacular to better Katherine Swift’s ‘Morville hours’ which I recommend to everyone who’ll listen!
Now the leaves are all stacked up to rot down over the next year, it’s time to make sure the roses are pruned back or tied in so the winter storms don’t damage the stems or loosen the roots hold on Terra firma. Grape vines have now also dropped their leaves so now is the time to prune them, which if their grown over a pergola by a patio door for example will dramatically increase the amount of light to the house. It’s also a good opportunity to use the prunings to take hardwood cuttings from vines. Bob Flowerdew recommends Boskoop Glory for its reliability outdoors and also Siegerrebe. I grow both and Siegerrebe has an outstanding flavour and ripens reliably early. Very recommended by me too.
Jobs to do in the fruit cage this time of year include cutting out fruited stems of both summer and autumn fruiting raspberries and tying in the new growth of the summer varieties. Gooseberries and currents can be pruned now but may be better left until the spring if you have problems with bullfinches takings the buds, and of course everything should get a good mulching!