Log pile at Ham House and Garden

Winter gardening jobs: December is a busy, optimistic month

Just because winter and the festive season has arrived, doesn't mean there's nothing to do in the garden. Our columnist Rosie Fyles, head gardener at the National Trust's Ham House, explains what needs to be done

It’s common to think that after November, the garden is ‘put to bed for winter’ and that there are few winter gardening jobs and generally, not much going on. When you’re a professional gardener, people often comment, ‘It must be quiet for you now…’ No, the quietest time for gardening at Ham House Garden is August, not December. Christmas arrives and we gardeners need a good rest.

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During a largely hard frost-free December is when we complete the jobs to make next spring the best. It’s optimism and hopefulness that spurs us on. From bulb planting to lawn re-edging, topiary shaping to mulching, December tends to be a bit frantic.

Winter gardening jobs for December

Think about your outside seating

Sunny spot in winter at Ham House and Garden
© Chris Davies

This December, both at home and at work, I’ve been creating places to sit outside through winter. It’s not something I have spent that much time pondering before, but this year it’s important. What’s genuinely surprising is how many different spots in the garden capture warm(-ish) winter sun. You might need to identify the sunniest place for morning coffee and another for afternoon tea but it’s worth it and it feels like a discovery, even if you’ve had your garden for years.

Re-assess your winter garden

Now is an ideal time to take a good, long look at the winter garden you have created. Have a seat and take in the views that you most regularly have of your outdoor space; cast a critical eye over what you see. In many cases, the garden might look a bit empty or ‘shabby’: there might be gaps where colour should be.

Plant for you and the birds over winter

A robin at Ham House and Garden
© Chris Davies

If you lack evergreen plants, take some time to first think about your preferences and then what your visiting birds might like too. Planting evergreen shrubs with long-lasting fruit might be the aesthetic improvement and wildlife food source your garden needs. Look at crab apples for warm colours and Pyracantha to train and shape formally, around windows and along fences. If you do one thing differently for wildlife, don’t remove lots of ivy. Take modest amounts if you’re using it for decorations but leave the fruit for birds – Christmas lunch is for everyone.

Wildlife in the garden in December

In busy December, take a few moments to do three things to benefit wildlife in your garden:

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  1. Provide water at ‘bird height’ (away from hunters) and ‘hedgehog height’, easy to sip from with tiny, short legs and no wings. Keep this water clean and unfrozen.
  2. Grab some logs and sticks and build a log pile. You can spend hours or just seconds, but the important thing is that afterwards, don’t touch your creation unless to add to it from above. Intact, unmoved and degrading it provides shelter, warmth and food, depending on what you are…
    Log pile at Ham House and Garden
    © Chris Davies
  3. Find some less visible, out of the way areas by fences or under hedges and do nothing to them until spring. Leave the leaf litter, the twigs and a slight level of apparent untidiness. You are providing a warm resting place for something by doing nothing at all – enjoy the feel-good factor.
    Garden leaves and mulch at Ham House and Garden
  4. If there is an empty spot that you pass regularly in the colder months, it’s the season to treat yourself to winter or Christmas box (Sarcococca confusa/Sarcococca hookeriana/Sarcococca humilis). In the coldest months, this reserved shrub with smart, shiny leaves throws out a heady, sweet scent from small, white/cream flowers that will transport you to flowering summer roses and warmer, light-filled times. I promise.

Read Rosie Fyle’s previous monthly columns here