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Gardening column: winter plants

07 December 2018


THE light dwindles, and with it our willpower to garden; but so, too, does the list of jobs that need our attention. In this most natural cycle, we are in the slow lane. Nevertheless, if you come across a forgotten bag of spring flowering bulbs, it would be a good idea to get them planted. It is late, and flowering may be delayed and shorter in duration, but still worthwhile. Tulips seem unaffected by a December planting, and are the one bulb I look for in the clearance sales.

It is only really after Christmas that the cold properly penetrates the soil, making it also the ideal time for planting bare-root shrubs and trees. Nurseries don’t like to lift these until after leaf drop, and, as it has been a late season for this, the window for action is narrow this year.

Talking of leaves, don’t rake up those on bare soil. Worms will be busy drawing them down into their subterranean world and turning them into nutrient-rich humus; so focus your attention on leaves on lawns, where they block the light and weaken the sward, or hard surfaces, where they can be slippery.

You can cut back perennials that have flopped into a messy pile, but leave those with lasting structure, such as achillea and scabious. Those hollow stems are cosy retreats for overwintering insects. In my garden, a late-season bonus has been watching the goldfinches flit between the seedheads of evening primrose.

Advent in the garden is more about letting be. As I reflect on the past growing season, what warms my heart is how gardening has connected people. It is a great leveller. My office within the garden wall was a place of real inclusion. During tea breaks, people from different backgrounds and with different reasons for volunteering in the garden would get to know one another. I remember one fraught conversation about the number of teacups needed for our charity open day. “Can I just ask who here believes in God?” a young man with Asperger’s piped up. A pause ensued, and then kind, but raucous, laughter.

An outdoor community space can serve a church well. Not just in providing a venue for events or possibly cut material for flower arrangements, but in attracting people. They may have physical strength to offer, a good “eye” to revamp a dingy corner, or just be drawn in by a shared sense of purpose. To address falling numbers, a church in Liverpool holds some of its “services” in a branch of Costa Coffee. Whatever your feelings on this, I can report that the church is thriving.

So consider the parish’s green areas as tools for mission. Would some people be happy to open their gardens to be part of a garden-trail day, ending at the church or parish hall? We gardeners tend to have a selective memory; so sign us up now, while we remember the good bits of our summer gardens and feel brave enough to share them. Oh, and one thing I learnt over the past year: tea (even in a plastic cup) and cake at these events are de rigueur.

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