In December it is easy to think it is all over. On Pig Row I have tidied up the utility shed, sharpened my hoe, my spade, oiled the handles of all my tools and wiped down the metal work with an oil rag. On one cold afternoon, I clean the glass on my greenhouse and watch the growing cabbage inside it. The experiment of growing cabbage, spinach and lettuce undercover is working. The lettuce is doing really well though the idea of lettuce at Christmas seems a little filthy.
The gardening year is not over and when I got my orchard last year at this time. I quickly earthed the trees up and I spent a few weeks preparing holes for them. The first weekend of December encourages the Celebration of Trees in both cities and the country. The planting of an orchard is a long term project and many of us don’t have the space to have an orchard in our garden. At our last home, Drovers, we had a cherry tree that we foolishly planted too close to the house. We loved the blossom for seven years, we enjoyed the fruit for eight years and then it started to suffer as the roots struggled to cope in the enclosed space. The tree came down in one afternoon and it was one of the saddest days of my life. I have never enjoyed cutting down trees but a tree in the wrong place is a tree that will inevitably fall foul of the chainsaw. When we moved to Pig Row we were faced with the same problem, several ash trees planted too close to neighbouring boundaries came down. Fortunately, the wood was saved and has been used in our new heating system. Many trees removed for new housing estates or grubbed up in people’s back gardens end up in landfill and that is the worst thing any gardener can do to a tree.
There is a tree for everyone out there but before you buy one make sure that this is the right tree for you. You may think that laurel is beautiful now but ten years from now you will have a monster in your garden and no plants living in its shade. A few weeks ago I saw this case in action when a friend said to me that she could do nothing with her garden. I went to see why she could do nothing with her garden – as this is a catch all phrase non-gardeners use it’s always best to go and see the causes - the reason for her worries became quickly evident. She had two Leylandii that she’d planted a mere eight feet apart twenty years ago. Twenty years on and eighty feet later her garden has been sucked dry by the tree roots. She did ask me how big they would grow; I didn’t have the heart to tell her that they were probably a good fifty feet off maturity. She has teenagers in the house; she doesn’t need to know she has teenage trees in her garden.
So, this month celebrate trees that are right for you and your garden. Here are a few of my favourite trees for small gardens. The Spartan eating apple, resistant to scab and mildew, a reliable cropper and partially self-fertile, the fruit should never be stored and is best eaten when crimson but it’s a good juicer. Harvest between October and January. It gets to a mere 4.5m in height. Betula utilis ‘Snow Queen’ or the Himalayan birch has beautiful bark, luminous white, with an ethereal glow in the summer and winter garden. Takes a few years to reach that wonderful white glow but needs more room than the Spartan as it can reach between 5-10m. One of my favourites and a growing trend with garden designers is the Prunus Shogetsu, the Japanese flowering cherry, bronze leaves give way to frilly double pink-and-white flowers. Plant it in a sunny, moist, well-drained spot and beware of aphids and caterpillars who love the young shoots. It reaches a manageable 5m. One that will soon be found of Pig Row is the Sorbus aucuparia ‘Fastigiata’ Mountain ash. Works well in narrow gardens and produces white flowers in spring and later in the year red berries. It’s one of the few ashes that tolerate city pollution and survives extremes of heat, cold and drought. It is bigger at 8m. As we started with an eater we will end with an unusual edible, Arbutus unedo, the Strawberry tree. This is an evergreen and will be a focal point in your winter garden. The strawberry tree can be a tree or with pruning a bush in your borders. With shredding bark and leathery leaves are spectacular and in the autumn there are white flowers, followed by bizarre, round fruits that ripen from yellow to red. You can eat them. The Portugese make them into brandy. You’ll need more than one tree to do this but maybe you want a brandy orchard. Your single tree or brandy orchard will need a sunny site sheltered from cold winds. It reaches 8m in height.
Whatever you plant this December, edible or ornamental, a tree will be with you for life and with luck will be with those that come after you for generations to come. A tree is a lasting legacy.