Gardening Tips

Best foot forward to winter


So, we’ve arrived at December in the strangest year most of us have ever known! We’ve needed our plants and gardens to help us stay sane, in a million different ways, and now we need them to get us through a very difficult winter as well……

A bright spark for us has been the publication this week of our first book ‘A Plant for Each Week of the Year’ by our brilliant columnist Louise Sims. Spare a thought for Laura as she wrestles to get it loaded on Amazon this weekend but if you prefer, you can get it direct from our site here– we think it will make a great Christmas present for gardeners.

Now let’s put the Christmas bubbles and baubles aside and make sure the birds are fed; have a bash at some houseplant cuttings and prune Japanese maples amongst other things…….

Doing bird

Green issues fill many newspaper columns and TV schedules these days which is such good news. And looking after our dwindling numbers of bird species is very much part of that drive to save our precious planet from more harm than we have already inflicted.

Our songbirds need some help now that food sources are becoming scarcer. It is important they find some high-energy nutrition in the winter, or they won’t be fit or healthy enough to breed in the spring, or feast on the annoying aphids and snails in your garden next spring! Another benefit for you, is that they’re delightful to watch while they’re feeding. Even if you have done the big garden tidy-up ready for winter and not left seedbeds and berries for our feathery friends, you can do something about it now.

Watching birds feeding is a frankly wonderful way to pass the time…………….

If you can provide a range of goodies, you’ll attract a larger variety of species to your garden. Proprietary birdseed (we get sacks of Countrywide birdseed, which seems to go down well), peanuts (not salted!), sunflower seeds, fat-balls, niger seeds, meal-worms – they all have their avian fans. Get the children involved in making birdseed cakes to put in hanging coconut shells (you’ll find all sorts of recipes on the internet). It’s not a good idea to have any of those things on the ground because they will attract vermin, but you can certainly leave fruit pieces on the lawn to interest robins and blackbirds and the like.

Grey squirrels were a real nuisance here when we used the ordinary wire-feeders – who knew squirrels were so blooming strong! The feeders were also raided by pigeons and even rooks sometimes. So we invested in a couple of pest-proof songbird feeders which have worked brilliantly. They work using a neat little trick – if anything heavier than, say, a blackbird, lands on the wire perch to reach the seed, it depresses the little door to the seed-hopper and they can’t get the food. Clever!

Keep those feeders topped up to help keep our precious bird populations going through the winter

Do clean out the feeders from time to time, by taking them apart and putting them in the dishwasher, or washing them with a 9:1 solution of water and bleach. Dirty feeders can cause salmonella bacteria among birds. Be careful that you dry all the pieces thoroughly though – if the seeds get damp, they will start to sprout and clog up the whole works!

The birds really appreciate a regular supply of clean water as well to drink or wash themselves in. We use a little cat-food bowl on our birdtables for that. You just have to make sure that it’s kept clean and topped up – and not frozen solid, of course.

And if space to hang a bird feeder is a problem, go for one of the lovely small window feeders – the RSPB have a gorgeous-looking new one with little Gothic arch ‘windows’ to watch the birds through at close range (link is at the bottom). It’ll be something to soothe your furrowed brow while you’re pretending to listen during a Zoom business meeting.

Houseplant happiness

Now I am no houseplant grower – I buy them and grow them and then get bored with them, mostly. I forget to water them, water them too much, keep them either too cold or too hot, discover too late that they’ve been affected by whitefly or scale insect or some other nasty, and end up throwing them out in disgust.

But in spite of neglect, I have had a big umbrella plant Schefflera arboricola growing well in our open front porch for over a decade. I’ve watered it when it looks dry, fed it when I’ve remembered (which isn’t often) and re-potted it a couple of times. It has to suffer the indignity of being draped in baubles and tinsel at Christmas, but it does have a little holiday each summer standing in a shady part of the garden.

To the point. My Schefflera got too big! Its arms were waving about and grabbing us as we came out of the front door. So, with very little ceremony, I chopped some of the arms off with secateurs.

Oh joy – my Schefflera cuttings rooted!

And me being me, I kept some pencil-sized bits of stem and stuck them in a gritty-compost-filled pot in my windowsill propagator (no hormone rooting powder, no bottom heat) to see if they’d do anything. Within about 6 weeks they had ALL rooted – what a surprise! I’ve potted them into individual pots, and now some of my friends might know what they are getting as a little horticultural Christmas present………………

The Schefflera cuttings looking perky in their own pots

I offer this tale to you purely as an illustration of the advice to ‘HAVE A GO ANYWAY’. Why not try taking some bits off your houseplants, and see if you can make more? Nothing’s lost if it doesn’t work, is it. This philosophy is as applicable to much of life as it is to houseplant-cuttings, I daresay. As Andre Gide said, ‘You cannot discover new oceans without the courage to lose sight of the shore’…………Have I gone too far now? Thought so.

By the way, if you actually would like to look at some fabulous houseplants, properly grown, check out the video put on the NGS website by Growbag friend, Geoff Stonebanks (link below).

Gardening shorts

  • Take the time to clean all the old bits of stem, twine and mud off canes and plant supports etc. before storing them away for the winter. You’ll be SO glad you did, when you’re charging around sticking them in the ground again next spring.
  • Japanese maples are gloriously decorative trees that don’t often need a lot of pruning. But if you do need to do some gentle shaping, now is the time to do it. They are fully dormant and won’t drip precious sap when you cut the stems.
Tidy up Japanese maples now if you need to
  • You can harvest those hardy winter vegetables now, like Brussels sprouts, parsnips, leeks and winter cabbages – so delicious with the warming stews and casseroles of the season.
  • If you sowed sweet-pea seeds back in September like I instructed you to do (once a teacher, always a teacher…), they might be getting a bit leggy now even if they were grown outside. Pinch out the tops to encourage them to put their energies into root production for strong plants to put in the garden next spring.
Sweet pea seedlings need pinching out at the top between your thumb and forefinger

Don’t forget about our online shop where you can order Louise Sims’ new book as well as Growbag cards, notebooks and jewellery – perfect as Christmas gifts.

The RSPB window bird feeders are here, and the video of Geoff Stonebanks’ houseplants is here on the NGS website.

NB If you’d like some more gardening chit-chat from the3growbags, just enter your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

6 replies on “Best foot forward to winter”

I did plant my sweet pea seeds in September outside. In 2 weeks they were 7 inches high! Within the month there were shoots enough to pinch so I did that. Now they are 10 inches high but seem to have slowed down a bit. I can’t imagine how they will make it to spring without needing repotting. What do you suggest?

Ah Maureen, my son’s sweet pea seedlings did exactly the same thing! They absolutely shot up and ran the risk of getting all weak and leggy. It’s been SO mild so far this autumn, that they haven’t been slowed up by the cold yet. If you think that they are starting to suffer because their roots have completely filled the pots, then I would definitely re-pot them – remember sweet peas like a long root-run. But I’m sure that once the winter really kicks in, they will slow their top-growth almost to a stand-still, and you will have strong plants to put out in their flowering positions in the spring. Frankly, Laura had the most pathetic-looking sweet pea seedlings last year, and they still came good in the end!

Yes … picking out tops of my sweet peas and they are looking healthy … so glad I’ve got them going early!!
Veg on allotment airways makes a meal more delicious…. harvesting leeks, sprouts, spinach, chard, parsnips and purple sprouting (leaves mostly!!)
My broad beans and onions are sprouting ready to flourish in the spring… no pesky pigeons in sight!!?”
The “love in the mist “self seeding has gone barmy and they are everywhere in the garden……
Thank goodness for outdoor space… keeps me sane!! Well sort of!!

Wow, Libby, what a fabulously productive allotment you have – what an absolute joy it is to pick something fresh from a plot and be eating it that day! I know what you mean about Love-in-a-mist too – thank heavens the seedheads are so pretty. With us it’s opium poppies, forget-me-nots and honesty; but I forgive them everything when they are flowering! Elaine

Hi Claire, Elaine here. My pest proof feeders came from Roamwild actually (‘Pestoff’), though I think that there are quite a few companies that make them or something similar, including the RSPB. I hope you manage to find some!

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