Paul Peacock - Mr Digwell

December is an important month in the garden, and it is great working next to Robins and various wildlife skittering in and out of the garden in search of food. Lately there have been a lot of Long Tailed Tits stopping by for a chat.

Soil

It’s been hard work in the rain and cold, but ridging the vegetable bed is an important way of helping the soil. Essentially it allows a greater area of soil to be exposed to the elements and therefore to break down naturally. Also, the action of the rain brings nitrates back into the soil – did you know that by ridging you can increase the amount of nitrates in the soil? It is one of the reasons why farmers leave the land ploughed, it improves the fertility of the soil!

Buddleia

Now I have a bit of a problem. I have a Buddleia which needs cutting, but it is in constant use. On the wall of the cottage there is a bird feeder and the birds come and sit in the bush before taking their turn on the feeder! But the problem is this: in order to maintain a really good bush it has to be cut back. If I do it will come back next year with no trouble. But if I don’t it will just become a straggling mess. Out come the pruning shears I’m afraid. I just hope that the birds won’t mind and will still come to the feeder!

Once cut back, I will mulch the base, after clearing away any weeds there may be. You can give it a serious haircut, cutting it back to around 30 cm (1 ft) from the ground. The buds will burst into life in the Spring and the bush will be just as tall as it was last year, but the flowers will be better.

Bare rooted trees

I like to prepare the ground a few weeks prior to planting because this gives the soil a chance to rest. Dig a large hole and half fill it with 50% well-rotted manure and 50% compost and then refill in with your dug out soil. In a couple of weeks you can plant in this mixture.

Don’t forget to support your new trees with a stake and make sure it is really firm. After a week or so you can revisit the newly planted trees and heel them in. This is important because rocking trees do not do well, it troubles new root growth.

Potatoes

Start potatoes! Yes! Start potatoes – not many, just a few. Pop them in a box of compost and keep frost free. In the New Year they can be planted into a frost free greenhouse or polytunnel and ignored, so you have, by Easter, something of a crop – assuming Easter falls in May! Use First Early varieties; these are the only ones that will work in this way. Give them a little water, not too much, and they will surprise you.

Dahlias

Early dahlias are fun to try. If you wrapped your tubers in newspaper and popped them under the stairs – it always was under the stairs for us, but any frost free place is good, then you can try planting some of them in the warm, in large pots of good compost. If you have a conservatory, this is the ideal place. Give them a little water and they will flower in May or early June.

This is the first ever gardening I did as a boy, both my father and grandfather were wild about dahlias, perhaps it was the ten guineas they almost invariably won at the flower show that was the interest. Back then it was almost a month’s wages!

General

Make sure that, every morning, you air the greenhouse – especially if you are actively growing in it. This way the chances of damping off and other fungal infections are reduced.

If you have a rockery, with fairly delicate plants, take some time to remove excess water so they are not broken up by the constant freezing and refreezing. Most alpines are fairly hardy, after all it is fairly cold living up in the mountains where many of them come from, but they do not like to be cold and wet.

Bring strawberries into the greenhouse for forcing. If you want brilliant fruits for Wimbledon, then cloche your strawberries and keep them warm. But to provide fruit even earlier – get them indoors in large pots.

It is also a good time to force rhubarb. We used to dig up the roots and leave them to overwinter on the surface but if you bring a couple indoors, pop them in a large box of compost (I use an old brood box from a beehive) and let them grow in the warm, you will get early rhubarb.

Work if you haven’t already done it includes:

  • Cleaning everything – disinfect tools, pots, work surfaces, greenhouse glass, water butts.
  • Turn the compost heap and insulate the thing so it doesn’t lose too much heat in the winter.
  • Dig out the borders for new bedding, and give onion and carrot beds for next year a really fine loamy soil by plenty of hoeing.
  • Manure potato beds.
  • Go round the garden firming in so the wind doesn’t rock the life from them.
  • Spend 15 minutes of each day, peeping out of the door of the shed or greenhouse, feeling good to be alive.

Mr Digwell gardening cartoon logo

Paul Peacock studied botany at Leeds University, has been the editor of Home Farmer magazine, and now hosts the City Cottage online magazine. An experienced gardener himself, his expertise lies in the world of the edible garden. If it clucks, quacks or buzzes, Paul is keenly interested.

He is perhaps best known as Mr Digwell, the cartoon gardener featured in The Daily Mirror since the 1950s. As Mr Digwell he has just published his book, A Year in The Garden. You can also see more about him on our Mr Digwell information page.

Flowers, Gardening, Gardening Year, Grow Your Own, Guest Posts, Paul Peacock - Mr Digwell

I’m getting tired of writing about the weather – and I dare say you are getting tired of reading about it. Besides, there are so many jobs to get on with we won’t have time to pause for breath, and it all starts with my favourite plants – Dahlias!

Dividing Dahlias

Likely as not, frost will hit us sometime in October, and this marks the end of the dahlia season. It is time to lift, divide and store them for the winter.

You will need some sulphur powder for this job, and a sharp knife.

Dividing Dahlias - dig up tubers
Remove the stalks and dig up the tubers, giving them a good wash to remove the soil / compost.

Cut down the plants and carefully dig up the tubers with a garden fork. Wash them clean and dry them with an old towel.
Dividing Dahlias - cut the tubers
With a knife or scissors, cut out the tuber as close to where it joins the plant as you can.

You will have a stem with lots of tubers that look rather like fat fingers. With a sharp knife, cut the fingers away at the base.
Dip the Dahlia ends in sulphur
Dip the cut end in sulphur powder to fight off any infections. Repeat with all the decent sized tubers you have.

Dust the cut surfaces with sulphur powder and then wrap the lot in newspaper – lots of layers, and store them in a frost-free place until spring.
Insulate dahlia tubers
Either wrap in several layers of newspaper or in a saved bubble wrap envelope for insulation. Place in a cool, dark place until Spring.

Label divided Dahlias
Don’t forget to label your dahlias with their name and the date they were stored.

Runner Beans

For perfect runner beans next year, now is the time to start a trench. Dig a trench that is around 18 inches deep. Mark it so you don’t fall down it and pile the soil along the side of the trench. Over the coming weeks, fill 3/4 full with vegetable matter – kitchen waste, potato peelings etc, but no gravy or meat, and when there is about 6 inches free space, top up with the soil leaving a little mound.

The vegetable material in the trench will rot and create heat, and it is amazing how long this heat lasts. It will give your plants a good start when you get to sowing, or transplanting in the spring. Actually, I sow in late February, covering the area with a cloche, protecting the seedlings from cold and rain and giving them a head start in their warm soil.

Roses

Roses have had a torrid summer and some of this can be alleviated now. Take cuttings of new growth and place them in compost – say 5 per six inch pot. Remove the lower leaves and cover with a plastic bag and around 60% at least will root, giving new plants for next year. Keep them in a frost free place, I use the polytunnel, and this is heated a little when the weather gets really bad.

Transplant them in April into a larger pot – 8 inches per plant will do, and give them generous water and feed every month. Plant them out next October.

This method is ideal for climbers and bush types where the root stock is not important – and don’t be too careful, I have had great results simply chopping at climbers with shears to control them, and using the most likely ones for cuttings.

Sweet Peas

The real promise of a summer of colour and fragrance is sown now: Sweet Peas! The best are sown in October, and I sow mine in pots and keep them in a cool greenhouse until spring, when they are transplanted as small plants. They get such a good start this way, rather than sowing them in spring. If you are in a sheltered area, spend some time preparing the soil, so they can grow rapidly in a nutrient rich soil – give them plenty of rotted manure. Plants that have to make lots of colour or aroma need a lot of nutrients, and this rule holds true for any plant.

Frost

Furry plants need protecting from frost – if you have furry leaves in the rock garden (sempervivums and so on), they need to be covered. If you can get a cloche in place, all well and good, but sometimes you need a sheet of plastic held down as firmly as you can, or a covering of straw held down with plastic.

Hedges

Making a good hedge is an October job because these shrubs take well if planted now. I recently made a hedge of blackthorn, berberis, mahonia – each planted about a foot apart, in a slight zigzag. As they grow, I train them into each other and, having made a backing fence of stout garden wire attached to stakes, I will tie them into their supports. Once they are in place, they need little looking after and are particularly good at living together. Mahonia especially is very colourful and makes for a super autumnal display.

Vegetables

In the vegetable garden it is time to take down the asparagus fronds. Don’t let the fronds settle on the ground, but cut them off and bring them away to the compost heap. This will keep the asparagus beetle at bay next year. I give them a mulch of compost and well rotted manure mixed at 50-50 proportions, and they seem to come on a treat using this regime. Here’s to next June!!!

Plant out cabbage ‘All Year Round’ and cover with a cloche. This way you will get cabbages right through the winter that look good. It’s one thing being able to actually get this variety to grow in Winter, it’s quite another to get great specimens. The wet wind plays havoc with them, and they soon look messy. A cloche will do the trick!

Don’t forget to earth up your leeks against the winter storms and go round heeling in the shrubs and young trees to make sure they are really firm in their beds before they get rocked about by the Winter weather, like a dentist pulling a tooth!

Mr Digwell gardening cartoon logo

Paul Peacock studied botany at Leeds University, has been the editor of Home Farmer magazine, and now hosts the City Cottage online magazine. An experienced gardener himself, his expertise lies in the world of the edible garden. If it clucks, quacks or buzzes, Paul is keenly interested.

He is perhaps best known as Mr Digwell, the cartoon gardener featured in The Daily Mirror since the 1950s. As Mr Digwell he has just published his book, A Year in The Garden. You can also see more about him on our Mr Digwell information page.

Annabel, Flowers, Gardening, Greenhouses, Guest Posts, Slugs & Snails

Birds, Bees and Dahlias

It was like a scene from a Walt Disney film.

There was my little boy standing in the middle of the patio with a bunny (we had let her out of her hutch earlier) hopping at his feet. Our friendly robin was sitting on the table watching and a dunnock kept sweeping past, flying from the hedge to the beech tree.

Further down the garden I could see a male blackbird pulling an unsuspecting worm out of the ground. The bees were happily buzzing in and out of their purple sleeping bags – foxgloves. All we needed now was for my daughter to skip past in her Snow White costume.

Unfortunately, the harmony was shattered when my little boy dropped his trowel onto the concrete, making a terrible din. All the creatures ran for cover.

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