In The Garden

IF YOU’RE after any last-minute Christmas presents, we uncover the cream of the crop of gardening books this year.

This week’s star plant is the holly, a stalwart of Christmas, with its deep green prickly leaves and scarlet berries. Plus, a look at how to keep your vegetable patch free from pests and diseases.

Gift books for gardeners

IF you’re already huddled up by the fire with some mince pies and a glass of mulled wined, it’s a great time to plan new garden designs, beds, borders and patio plantings from the comfort of your armchair.

We all need some inspiration from time to time, so with this in mind it might be worth sticking a number of books on your last-minute Christmas list, either for a loved one or to entertain yourself.

Here’s just a few ideas from a plethora of great gardening titles which have come out this year:

Coffee table tomes:

Great Gardens Of Italy, by Monty Don and Derry Moore (Quadrille, £25): Escape to more than 30 magnificent Italian gardens featured within these pages, which have influenced and inspired almost every landscape designer and architect since the Renaissance. Each garden is placed in the context of its surrounding landscape and the lives of those who made it and who tend it today.

Gardens Of The National Trust, by Stephen Lacey (National Trust Books, £30): Stephen Lacey paints a vivid historical and horticultural picture of the National Trust gardens, from the formality of early gardens such as Hanbury Hall and Ham House, magnificent 18th century landscapes such as Stowe and Croome Park, and the heady Victorian creations of Biddulph Grange and Waddesdon Manor. The book serves as a practical guide as well as a source of inspiration, with each entry detailing soil type and climate.

All-rounders

The Curious Gardener, by Anna Pavord (Bloomsbury, paperback £9.99): This is the perfect book to guide you through the gardening year and, on days when the weather keeps the most courageous gardener indoors, the perfect book to curl up with beside the fire. Pavord brings together in 12 chapters - one from each month of the year - 72 pieces on all aspects of gardening.

Our Plot, by Cleve West (Frances Lincoln, £20) If you want some no-nonsense allotment inspiration from one who knows, six times Chelsea gold medal winner and allotment holder Cleve West has produced his first book which is full of practical tips. West admits his mistakes so there’s plenty of advice of the what-not-to-do variety, as well as brilliant tips for successful growing - and delicious cooking - of all the best fruit and veg.

The RHS Complete Gardener’s Manual: How To Dig, Sow, Plant And Grow (Dorling Kindersley, £20), New, extensive guide for both beginners and more experienced gardeners, containing all the practical techniques, inspirational ideas and problem-solving advice that you need to maintain a garden of any size. From choosing the right tools for the job and improving soil, to planning a productive kitchen garden, this detailed manual combines practical advice with design inspiration and step-by-step techniques.

The wild ones:

Sarah Raven’s Wild Flowers, by Sarah Raven (Bloomsbury, £50): Inspired by childhood excursions with her botanist father, Raven offers this lavishly illustrated guide to 500 of our most beautiful wild flowers, divided by season and habitat, incorporating gardens, hedgerows, meadows, ponds, coasts, woodlands and wasteland.

The Thrifty Forager, by Alys Fowler (Kyle Books, £16.99): Where others see weeds, Fowler sees supper. In this book, she looks at everything from the edible ornamentals in your garden to the ‘weeds’ by canals and along local riverbanks. What could be more satisfying than discovering a tree full of mulberries or blackberries perfect for picking? Did you know that you can eat poppy leaves or mahonia berries or that figs and raspberries often grow in parks? Keep your eyes peeled because food is all around.

Stocking fillers:

Keep Calm And Pot On, by Liz Dodds (Quadrille, £4.99): Have you ever thought how useful it would be to have a pocket-sized book of gardening advice to take outside with you into the garden? Ever looked at a plant infected with white fly and wondered what to do? Then this is the book for you, crammed with practical advice, tips and techniques, as well as being awash with humorous quotes to keep you amused while waiting for that inevitable rain cloud to clear.

Growing To A Ripe Old Age: 50 Years In The Garden, by Edward Enfield (Summersdale, £9.99 hardback): Half a century of gardening has given Edward Enfield, father of comedian Harry, plenty to write about in this delightful autobiography focusing on his horticultural pursuits. This amusing little book features witty anecdotes about his experiences in rose-growers’ competitions, keeping chickens and other gardening miscellany. Perfect for escaping the Christmas repeats on telly.

The Ten-Minute Gardener’s Fruit, Flower and Vegetable-Growing Diaries, by Val Bourne (Bantam, £9.99 each, hardback): These beautifully bound little books are perfect presents for the time-pressed gardener, offering insights on what to do each month, step-by-step instructions and Bourne’s own secrets to success.

Why Every Man Needs A Tractor, by Charles Elliott (Frances Lincoln, £14.99): Tales of great gardeners and heroic plant hunters share space with more personal revelations in this humorous gem, including exactly why every man needs a tractor, how to deal with a relentless west wind and the challenge of a knotweed infestation. From the acclaimed author of The Transplanted Gardener and The Potting Shed Papers.

Best of the bunch — holly (Ilex aquifolium)

The holly is the stalwart of Christmas, its bright red berries and rich green leaves taking pride of place in many festive wreaths and other decorations.

But remember when buying a holly bush that if you want berries, check on the variety you are buying, because most types of holly carry the male and female flowers on separate plants, so one of each is required for successful fertilisation.

If you only have room for one, some varieties are self fertile and will produce berries, such as Ilex aquifolium ‘JC van Tol’, which produces an abundance of bright red berries.

The names of some can be misleading - ‘Indian Chief’ is female, while ‘Silver Queen’ is a male variety.

They will thrive in virtually any soil in sun or shade, although variegated types need a sunny spot.

Good enough to eat - Protect your veg patch from pests

Often the best way to preserve your veg patch is to make sure that you have strong, healthy plants growing in there in the first place, making them more resistant to disease. Use crop rotation and sound growing techniques and you’re half way there.

Barriers may also be needed to ward off pests. Fine mesh netting can be used to protect most veg when they are young and is great for carrots, to stop carrot fly, and for cabbages to protect the crop from cabbage white butterflies.

Another good method of protection is companion planting, making the companions more tempting to pests than your veg. Herbs such as lavender, thyme and chives, produce strong scents which will distract pests from your crops, while French marigold roots give off chemicals which reduce the numbers of pest nematodes, slugs and wireworms.

Ultimately you may have to live with some pests and diseases, but they don’t have to mean the end for your crops.

Three ways to... Make a winter statement

1. Place a pair of box balls either side of a path or at the top of your steps, to bring definition to the garden.

2. Use variegated evergreens in shadier areas to lift the scheme, such as Ilex altaclarensis ‘Golden King’.

3. Use deep plum or purple-leaved plants with creamy coloured wispy grasses in good light to create a striking contrast. Deep-coloured heather, for example, looks great intermingled with sedge.

What to do this week

Prune apple and pear trees and treat the cuts with a wound paint.

Check that fuchsias packed in compost for the winter do not completely dry out and protect the crowns of hardy fuchsias outdoors with garden compost.

Open greenhouse ventilators on sunny days but close them early in the afternoon before the temperature drops.

Continue to cut back tired perennials such as sedums to keep the garden looking tidy.

Cut suckers of small trees such as Cornus controversa back to ground level to stop them competing with the tree.

Take hardwood cuttings of dogwood, flowering currant, grape vine, honeysuckle and forsythia.

Dig up parsnips as needed. They are sweeter once hit by the frost.

Move empty pots under cover or in sheltered spots where they are unlikely to freeze. Poorly fired terracotta pots may not withstand frost.

Stake tall brassicas such as purple sprouting varieties, and earth up shorter ones such as spring cabbages to stop them blowing over.

Cover maincrop carrots still in the ground with a layer of straw or a cloche.