My favourite Christmas trees are growing outside and will – I hope – never be brought into the house. I think I am safe on that score because you would need a crane to shift even the smallest one.
There are 16 of them, all clipped to tight cone shapes and all made from yew, Taxus baccata. We have become accustomed to Christmas trees being something we buy and bring indoors as a symbol of green growth in the middle of winter, but that symbolism is just as powerful at this time of year when it is growing outside.
My ranks of yews are, on bleak midwinter days, a constant source of hope and inspiration that there is life and growth and spring will indeed come before too long.
British gardening expert Monty Don, shared his advice for nurturing evergreens ahead of the festive season. Pictured: Monty with his dogs Patti and Nellie and his yew cones
Evergreens like yew do not get such a good press as all the floral alternatives, but our gardens would be very bare without them for half the year.
All the seasonal green we associate with wreaths, decoration and festivity work their magic just as well in the garden.
Holly, ivy and mistletoe also adorn my plot and I would not be without any of them at any time of year.
Monty with Nellie and the topiary tribute to Nigel
Q The flowerheads on my dahlias droop down. What can be done to grow them upright?
Steven Lincoln, Tollerton, Notts
A Different dahlias have different lengths and thicknesses of stalks. If you grow them in maximum sunlight and pinch out the tips in early summer when they are forming flower buds they will grow more upright. Strong and straight varieties include ‘David Howard’, ‘Chimborazo’, ‘Tamburo’, ‘Chat Noir’ and ‘Rothesay Reveller’.
Q I’ve been growing a fig tree in my unheated greenhouse since spring. How do I take care of it over winter? Should I leave the skylight and door open?
AJ Ball, Notts
A Figs are very hardy. So by all means leave doors and windows open if that tree is all you have growing in your greenhouse. Do not prune until spring and remember it produces its fruit on the previous year’s growth.
Q Can I divide hardy geraniums like ‘Rozanne’ and ‘Patricia’?
John Foster, Birmingham
A Yes, easily. Simply lift the parent from the soil and cut or pull it apart into as many pieces as you want. Either plant them out immediately or pot them up to grow on and then plant them out in early spring, just as they are beginning to grow.
Write to Monty Don at Weekend, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT or email [email protected] Please include your full name and address. We regret Monty can’t reply to letters personally.
Another example, box, Buxus sempervirens – and the dwarf variety B. s. ‘Suffruticosa’ – was for centuries the ideal hedging plant to establish year-round green garden structure, making parterres, hedges, labyrinths and complicated patterns around bedding plants.
But it is now too riddled with box blight and box tree caterpillar to be a viable choice for low hedging.
I do, however, still have two avenues of box cones, using the very vigorous, large-leafed box B. s. ‘Handsworthiensis’, one planted alongside a path down what we call The Long Walk and the other in large pots on our cricket pitch (where not a ball has been bowled for 20 years, but long ago, when my children were small, we did indeed play cricket there).
Although this variety is not immune to blight, it recovers if given plenty of ventilation and left uncut for a year or two.
I am replacing much of my box with yew, which, as well as making magnificently statuesque shapes or high hedges, can also be kept to a reasonably constrained size and shape.
Yew grows faster than box and will, by and large, grow anywhere as long as – and this is essential – it has decent drainage.
On my heavy clay that means adding lots of grit beneath any yew that I plant, and also mound-planting hedges – in other words, planting them on a ridge made of earth and grit so the roots never sit in cold, wet soil.
Once planted, though, my yew hedges get little care other than a mulch of mushroom compost (they appreciate the alkalinity) every spring and a trim every August. That is it.
Clipping hedges into shapes, however – whether they are of box, yew or holly – is creative, provides structure and is, I think, an irresistible instinct.
Of course it is wholly unnatural and controlled, but then so is all gardening, and it takes less time, skill and trouble than, for example, establishing a wildflower meadow.
What’s more, it is fun. Too often we become solemn about gardening, but if it fails to offer pleasure and delight, then it fails completely.
Whatever shapes you make with evergreen plants, winter is the best time to appreciate them. The advantage of using yew for topiary is that if you clip it in late summer it holds its shape until well into the next spring.
I only cut my yew shapes once a year, with one exception – topiary Nigel, the yew tribute to my beloved retriever who died last spring, gets a trim twice a year, in July and again in early autumn. But then, Nigel always did have an exceptionally shaggy coat.
MONTY’S PLANT OF THE WEEK: CHRISTMAS ROSE (Helleborus niger)
Monty said Christmas Rose thrives best in rather damp soil in a partially shaded spot
The Christmas Rose is the first hellebore that will flower in British gardens and the harbinger of the wonderful hellebore display that will follow later in winter and into spring.
Its pure white, open flowers are held above leathery green foliage, and it’s happiest in a partially shaded spot so ideal for growing in a border around the base of a tree or shrub.
It likes rather damp soil so I always add compost or leafmould to the planting hole to retain moisture. Remove the fading leaves as the flowers start to open and new foliage will appear in spring.
THIS WEEK’S JOB: HARDWOOD CUTTINGS
Cut a straight 60cm length the thickness of a pencil of this year’s growth. Divide it into 15cm lengths. Cut straight across the bottom and at an angle at the top.
Place so one third is above the soil in a trench backfilled with sand. Leave until next autumn, watering well once a week.