In the calm between rapids on our rafting trip in North West Argentina, I spotted some Tillandsia growing impressively on the sheer cliffs. These tropical, rosette-forming plants absorb moisture and food through their leaves. We have a large specimen at home, wired to the window catch, that we brought back from honeymoon and that now I must keep alive. I fear that should it die, the edifice of our marriage will fall, rather like the Tower of London will fall should the ravens leave…
Fortunately Tillandsia are very tolerant of neglect. I spray ours when I remember with a weak solution of phostrogen. So far it has never flowered, but that is perhaps a blessing because most Bromeliad rosettes gradually die once they have flowered.
In the flower garden and in the vegetable garden, it is now time to tidy and sort. Do not attempt to dig if the soil is too wet. You will not manage to turn it well and the weight will hurt your back.
Keep the grass and borders clear of fallen leaves. Try to stay off the lawn if it is either too wet or frozen. You may find that you still need to do the occasional mow, but be sure to set the cutting bar or rotor higher than you would in the summer.
Winter is a good time to send off the mower for a service. Not only do we not need the mower, it is a quiet time at the repair shop.
I’d like to suggest a couple of fruiting trees, which appeal to me because of their apparent antiquity and Englishness. First the Medlar, its fruit described by Sackville-West as resembling a rotting or ‘bletted’ pear by the time it was ready to eat. But it makes a pretty garden tree, and its tendency to weep to the ground makes it a good and safe hiding place for the young.
The second is the Mulberry. It is slow-growing — you won’t get fruit within eight years — but they are worth the wait. The King James, a newly available old variety, is a variety of ‘great historical interest’ because it has been propagated from the specimen at Chelsea Physic Garden, which is known to have been in existence in the early 17th century. In Eton we have a tree of similar age, but its last branch with any leaves on it disappeared this summer.
At this time of bonfires and leaf clearance, spare a thought for those small animals that like to nest or to hibernate in loose piles of vegetation, particularly hedgehogs. Be sure that there are no squatters in your bonfire before you set match to it. Better still, keep the fire small and build from scratch before you light it.
Similarly, when working on a compost heap be careful of the loose areas as you put your fork through it. What with our roads and ever more fenced and walled gardens, hedgehogs have a tough time already — oh, and they eat up garden pests for us too.
Dr Holliday is a GP in Windsor, Berkshire
This month’s tasks
Plant fruit trees.
Clear grass borders of fallen leaves.
Build a bonfire, watching out for hedgehogs.