Helen's monthly choice - December 2019

December is always a busy month with all the preparations for Christmas, but ideally you should try to make a little time to spend out in the garden too. There are now only a very few of the last, resolute leaves still clinging stubbornly to the branches, so it’s the perfect time to clear them all away before they turn mushy underfoot. They should be kept though as they can be added to the compost heap, or turned into leaf mould - and this time next year you will have lots of free, nutritious mulch for the borders. Now is also the best time to plant roses, bare root hedging and fruit trees, as it gives them a chance to settle in through winter and perhaps even put on some new root growth before the worst of the weather hits. This ultimately will help get them off to a better start in spring. Planting now will also ensure that you get the pick of the best varieties, which often sell out quickly. Finally, before you take off your wellies and head inside for a glass or two of mulled wine, make sure there are no loose bulbs hanging around that haven’t been planted yet, as it will soon be too late.

My favourites for December

Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna 'Purple Stem'

A tough and tolerant evergreen shrub that is perfect if you need to create an informal hedge in a shady spot, or want understorey planting with year-round interest in a woodland garden. The leaves are rich green and lustrous, and emerge in spring on purple-stained stems. It's pink-flushed flowers smell divine in mid- to late winter, so keep this in mind when finding a good spot for it. It’s also particularly good for city gardens, or for those that live on a busy road, as it takes atmospheric pollution in its stride.

Camellia × vernalis 'Yuletide'

Camellias often get a mention as one of my favourites. I think they are a fab because (provided you have acidic soil), they are a relatively easy going group of plants that offer year-round screening as well as exquisite flowers in a wide range of colours and forms. This one blooms in late autumn and early winter, so fits snugly between the autumn-blooming sasanquas and the spring flowering japonicas. Its bright pinkish red flowers, which usually appear in abundance in the build up to Christmas, can’t fail to instill a bit of seasonal cheer.

Chimonanthus praecox

Chimonanthus praecox

The common name for this shrub is wintersweet – and it’s well deserved. It flowers in winter and the waxy purple-stained, pale lemon flowers have a deliciously sweet and spicy perfume. Cut some of the bare branches just before the buds open and bring them inside the house where the sudden warmth will open the buds and fill your home with perfume. In the garden it has a good vase shaped habit, but it can also be trained to grow flat against a sunny wall if space is at a premium. I think it is smashing.

Garrya elliptica 'James Roof'

Garrya elliptica 'James Roof'

For me the main appeal of this big bushy shrub is the silvery tassels that drip from its branches like giant icicles throughout winter. It’s a seasonal treat, which can also be enjoyed when whole stems are cut for indoor arrangements. A practical and versatile evergreen, it can be wall trained or left as a freestanding specimen, and as it tolerates salt spray, it is excellent in coastal settings. Offer shelter from icy winds and tuck it in with a deep mulch in the autumn.

Mahonia × media 'Charity'

Mahonias may not be the most fashionable of plants, but love them or loathe them they will often play a vital role in the winter garden. Here are some good reasons to love ‘Charity’. It is incredibly tough and can cope with tricky spots - even those that are heavily shaded. It retains its holly-like foliage throughout the year and its slender flower spikes, which appear for several months throughout winter, have a subtle but sweet scent. Wildlife love it too and the flowers provide a valuable winter source of nectar for pollinating insects. Later, the trusses of blue-black berries that follow create a tempting picnic for the birds.