Estates Manager blog: December

7 December 2023

Preparing for a new season and appreciating the natural structures of our gardens

December can be wonderful in the garden! Clear, sunny days as the temperatures dip and the mists lift, taking us from morning gloom to delightful afternoons. Although, with the shortening daylight, these hours never feel like enough to get everything done outside.

A sharp frost can transform trees and shrubs into artworks with beautiful silver linings running along their branches (and leaves if they have any left). This season is all about structure, both man-made and natural, and it’s a good time to admire – or critique – the shapes and sizes of plant canopies – which may lead to you writing a longer ‘to-do’ list as you discover pruning opportunities previously hidden by foliage!

Jobs to be getting on with:


If the lawn is very wet or frosted, it is best to keep off it altogether. If you absolutely must cross the lawn, it is good to spread your weight by putting down planks to walk across, although beware of these being slippery!

Continue to clear fallen leaves from your lawns. This helps the grass to continue photosynthesising when it can and reduce the risk of various lawn diseases.


If you are storing bulbs, tubers or corms over winter, it is good housekeeping to maintain a regular schedule of checking them for signs of disease or rot – both of which can spread quickly throughout the stock if left unchecked. Throw away any that look like they are ailing.


Root cuttings can be taken right through winter from most perennials. It is a great way to increase your plant stock and you have the knowledge of where they have come from! Dig the chosen plant up, wash the roots and then cut a section off. Make a slanting cut at the base of the cutting so you remember that is the bottom. Insert this upright into a pot with mixed compost and vermiculite, then cover with grit and label. New growth should appear in the spring, after which you can then pot them on if you had several in one pot.


Ornamental vines can be pruned now to keep them in check – some can produce over ten feet of growth in one season and become a tangled mess in no time if left to their own devices. Thin out any overcrowded shoots and trim side shoots to within two buds of the main stem framework.

Trees & shrubs

If you have newly planted trees or shrubs, it is a good idea to check them throughout winter to ensure they have not had their rootstock loosened by stronger winds. If you notice cracks in the soil around a new plant, gently firm the soil back in with your heel, without applying too much pressure – which would drive out the air. If gaps form around root stock, the plant can suffer from drying out, even in wet weather! Pruning tall rose bushes back by half their height helps to prevent this problem for this set of plants.

Deciduous trees and shrubs can be pruned for shape or health. First remove diseased or dead wood. Look out for branches crossing too tightly too, these rubbing branches can cause bark to become thin, or even remove bark completely making them more prone to disease infection. If the plant is casting too much shade, look to prune out the central growth to create a more open, goblet shape effect to the canopy. This will allow more light through and reduce the risk of infection.


Winter prune standard form apple and pear trees. This consists mainly of pruning back the leaders (ends of branches) by up to a third. The centre of the tree should be opened as much as possible to create an airy canopy in a goblet shape. This allows air to circulate, the sun to ripen the fruits and it makes harvesting easier without lots of fruit tangled in the centre of the tree!


Vegetables & herbs

Now is a great time to make a hotbed, using fresh horse manure! Popular during Victorian times, and still a lovely way to grow extra early crops during the cold months.

Although a hotbed can be freestanding, it is better to contain it in some way, such as within an unused wooden compost bin.

Put a decent amount of manure down, so it accounts for at least 80% of the finished mound. Cap it off with a soil mix seven parts loam, three parts spent mushroom compost and two parts coarse grit. This requires thorough mixing before capping off the manure. Place a cold frame on top and leave for two or three weeks. A lot of heat will be generated and you need to wait for the temperature to drop before sowing crop seeds into it. You can grow a wide range of things in this such as salads, turnips, carrots and radishes.

Things to see and do at Furzey Gardens

Winter at Furzey Gardens is a slightly quieter affair than the dizzy heights of spring, or soft shades of autumn, however look closely and there is still plenty to enjoy. Our winter heather, including Erica x darleyensis ‘Furzey’, is starting to flower and is adding beautiful pale tones to borders around the gardens. Elsewhere Camellia burst into life in December, adding welcome pops of colour. I have recently introduced several new camellia plants in the gardens, including Camellia x vernalis ‘Yuletide’, which has a striking red bloom – just perfect for this time of year.

Another addition to our winter planting are Mahonia. We already have several established Mahonia shrubs around the garden, but I have been busy introducing a few more specimens and I can’t wait for them to establish themselves, producing their slender spikes full of small bright yellow flowers throughout winter. One variety introduced is the aptly named Mahonia × media ‘Charity’, with dark green holly like leaves, the flowers on this provide a valuable source of nectar to pollinating insects in winter.

There is plenty to see this December with a visit to Furzey Gardens. The last few leaves of autumn are still clinging on providing some wonderful sights in the winter sunshine. Around our borders, a few autumn flowers are still looking beautiful, although as I write the cold snap we are experiencing may make these sights short-lived.

I am delighted to say that that the Garden Sculpture trail which arrived in September will be staying throughout the winter, so there is still a chance to enjoy these wonderfully pieces of art if you haven’t done so already.

This December our younger visitors can enjoy a fairy-sized Christmas as they follow our tree trail and help Tinsel the fairy find her friends and their 20 festive trees. Tinsel’s Tree Trail runs daily (except Mondays) from 11am – 3.30pm, until 23 December. Trail map costs £1, normal garden entrance applies.

On Saturdays and Sundays throughout December you can snuggle up in a cosy spot in our Tea Rooms and immerse yourselves in our Children’s Christmas Story Corner. Children can enjoy the seasonal wonders of classic tales read by our volunteer, along with modern stories fuelling imaginations young and old! The story telling is a free activity drop-in activity; please stay with your children whilst they are listening to the stories.

However you choose to enjoy your garden spaces this December, I wish you all a peaceful and enjoyable time this festive season and look forward to sharing more garden tips in the New Year.

This article originally appeared as the monthly In The Garden column in the Lymington Times, buy the paper on the second Friday of every month to read the next column first.


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