Melanie Dool’s gardening column in association with Orchardstown Garden Centre
I KNOW there are early birds out there who have been in the Christmas mood in November or earlier but we do not even think about it until the date changes to December and then it is full steam ahead organising what to do and high on our list of priorities is to have lots of natural indoor decorations which we have on windows sills, tables and the main mantelpiece.
Many readers will recall that I prune little and often on certain plants that I can then use as indoor decorations. I think it is a great way to achieve two aims, one of which is to keep plants in shape and the other is to enjoy them indoors especially during the winter months. There is an increase in using parts of plants in the period leading up to and after Christmas and there are many different pieces that can make a good display. We use cones of pine, larch, fir and spruce and branches of a multitude of plants like hazel, willow, dogwood, including contorted (twisted or curly) branches as in hazel – Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ or ‘Red Majestic’ or willow – Salix ‘Tortuosa’ or ‘Sekka’.
We create our indoor displays with a combination of both living and artificial materials with the greater emphasis on plants. Berries are provided by green holly which we have cut already and are holding in jars of water outside covered with nets to keep the birds away but if we are stuck we will improvise with any other berries that are around such as ivy, pyracantha, skimmia and rowan. It is worth keeping in mind that the berries of coloured leaved hollies are usually left alone and are a good source for indoor displays in December and these varieties include ‘Madame Briot’, ‘Gold Flash’, ‘Golden King’, ‘Silver Milkmaid’ and the yellow berried ‘Bacciflava’.
Cones, branches and berries will last through the festive season regardless of the extra warm conditions they have to contend with but flowers though a welcome addition will fade fast enough and will need regular replacing. The most popular subjects include winter cherry, arbutus, Viburnum tinus and x bodnatense, Helleborus niger and winter heathers – Erica carnea types.
Most of our birds do not hibernate and are very noticeable during the winter months, especially in very cold, frosty or lingering snowy periods. Many people notice how the birds struggle to obtain their daily food requirements and supplement their diet by putting up bird feeders and tables.
This obviously helps larger bird numbers to survive and gives a huge amount of pleasure to people of all ages and especially those with limited mobility or largely confined to the home. Every year there is a winter national bird survey and this is a fun thing to do as you note the numbers and types of birds that visit your garden for a selected period. To obtain a copy of the survey sheet go to birdwatchireland.ie but it is not the best recording form and we have made up our own.
Much of our wildlife follows the seasons and goes into a degree of winter hibernation depending on the species and this might give the impression that they have disappeared. The Hedgehogs slow down their heart beat from a summer high of 190 times per minute down to around 20 times during the coldest winter months and it is something similar with frogs, while most butterflies and moths spend winter as caterpillars or pupae lying dormant near the base of plants and maybe, as adults like the peacock or small tortoiseshell, overwintering in dark, sheltered places such as buildings where they get a head start during the first warm days of spring.
TIP OF THE WEEK
Despite the recent rains the ground underneath is fairly dry and on some cold mornings I spend some time getting warm by digging in compost over any area that I will be planting vegetables or flowers next year. Leave the digging very rough and do not break the soil down or rake it over as it will become sodden with rain but let the winter do it naturally and it will be just right by next spring.
Garlic, rhubarb and hedges are the main planting occupations during the next few weeks especially beech and native hedging including beneficial wildlife plants.