If you need an escape from all the Christmas preparations, your garden offers the perfect place to go. Most plants may be resting but work you do now will help get you in good stead for the new year to come.
Putting out high-fat (high-energy) foods for birds in winter will help our feathered friends to get through the worst of the weather. Adjust the quantity you put out according to demand, regularly wash bird feeders and throw away old food. If squirrels are a problem in your garden, take a look at our .
A tray is good for ground-feeding birds, such as blackbirds, starlings and chaffinches, but be aware of rats, which may also be attracted. One technique that can prevent rats climbing poles to reach hanging feeders is to thread the pole through an upside-down plant pot.
Leaves can make hard surfaces, such as paths, incredibly slippery, especially during wet weather. Brush the leaves off and either put them in black bin bags or a chicken-wire cage so they can rot down and make leafmould, which is great for mulching borders and beds.
Sharp secateurs cut much more cleanly than blunt ones, so it’s well worth spending some time sharpening them. Clean the blades with wire wool to remove any plant sap that’s stuck to them and then sharpen the blade with a whetstone. Alternatively, Felco secateurs can be sent to the manufacturer for sharpening and repair if needed.
Take everything out and think about whether you used it during the past year. The Conservation Foundation () takes donations of broken tools for prisoners to repair that then go to local schoolchildren and community groups. Wall hangers are good for keeping your remaining tools tidy.
Keep winter brassicas tidy by removing any yellowing leaves. The low light levels in December mean that even cold-tolerant brassicas can’t maintain many functioning green leaves. Removing old ones to compost reduces the slug habitat and also allows you to spread the annual mulch of 3-5cm deep of compost around the stems of Brussels and broccoli plants, to be ready for spring.
Parsnips can be harvested at any time of winter, but if your soil lies wet they may develop canker, a brown rot around the shoulders. It can be cut off but reduces what you can eat.
Homegrown Brussels, sautéed rather than boiled and still bright green, are a highlight to any meal at this time of year. If yours are poor, make a note to sow the variety ‘Doric’ around mid-May next year, to plant around the middle of June. Pick the sprouts from the bottom of the stems up, as the lower sprouts are more mature.
Leeks of summer varieties (sown in April like other varieties, but maturing earlier) with long stems, want harvesting now as their shanks are at risk of frost damage. Leeks of spring varieties will grow a lot more in mild weather so are best left until March or April. If you’ve multi-sown your leeks like I do, you’ll have more than one plant per station. You can either lift the whole clump or insert a knife and cut through the roots to remove one plant without damaging the rest.
Having cut off all the woody stems on asparagus or autumn-fruiting raspberries, pull up any weeds and spread 2-3cm of compost, or 5cm on light soils. If weeds are thick, lay cardboard on top of them, then add the compost. For larger fruit bushes, cut cardboard to shape and snuggle it up around the woody stems. Thick cardboard smothers annual weeds until they die from light deprivation, then decompose in situ and leaves a clean surface, as the card decomposes and is eaten by worms. New asparagus spears can push through the decomposing mulch in spring.
Remove dead/weak growth and crossing branches. Shorten this year’s growth on main branches by a third to a bud facing the direction you want it to grow in. Cut back side-shoots to five or six buds.
Hedging, trees, fruit and roses are the most commonly available bare-root plants and it’s worth taking advantage of buying them this way during the dormant season. Not only are they cheaper, but there’s no plastic or peat involved in their production, so you’re helping the environment, too.
There's no need to pay for an expensive wreath in the shops, as it's easy to make one using material gathered from the garden. To keep things simple, use a ring-shaped piece of floral foam, which costs about £5-£7 from garden centres or online.
Be generous with the decorations to hide the floral foam underneath. Holly berries are the traditional final touch, but bright-red chilli peppers also work well. Push a short length of wire through their stems to attach them to the wreath.
For colour and scent over Christmas, you can't beat pots of bulbs such as hyacinths or paper-white narcissus. Don't worry if you didn't get around to planting some in autumn, as you can buy pots of ready-grown bulbs now.
To keep them at their best for as long as possible, put them in a well-lit spot in a cool room. The long leaves of narcissus look good when supported by a few twiggy stems from the garden.
After the bulbs finish flowering, you can either throw them away or plant them in the garden.