By Ruth Hayes published
Already thinking about what to plant in December? As long as the soil isn't saturated or frozen, there are plenty of things you can add to your planting list.
Early December planting requires less work, because the rain-dampened ground is easier to dig. So, now can be a great time to start putting new flowerbed ideas into action. Plus, you shouldn't need to water as often as in spring and summer. And all that activity will keep you warm and fit – and help work off some of those festive goodies!
If you plan to plant trees and shrubs, make sure that whatever you buy suits your soil and the spot you wish to plant it, or is suitable for a container if that's what you are planning. Add some bone meal to the planting hole or container compost, as this will break down through winter and feed the roots next spring.
And if you are getting ahead with seed sowing, remember that hardy annual seeds can be germinated in a greenhouse or cold frame, while more tender varieties such as some bedding plants need more warmth. A temperate windowsill with good light (though out of direct sunlight) or heated propagator are ideal at this time of year.
Enjoy being outside this month with our list of what to plant in December
The weather might be getting colder by the day, but there are still plenty of options for what to plant in December to ensure your garden has lots of color and interest over the coming months.
When you look at the multitude of colors, shapes, heights and varieties of tulips, you realize exactly why they drove people mad, literally, in the 16th century.
'Tulip mania' swept through Europe when these glamorous plants, which originate from Central Asia, arrived on the continent. The name comes from their shape, reputed to resemble a Turkish turban, and bulbs became a precious commodity – the preserve of the wealthy – with one reportedly selling for more than the price of a house in Amsterdam!
Like all spring-flowering bulbs including daffodils, crocuses and alliums, tulips are planted in the autumn. But, as you'll know if you've already seen our guide on how to plant tulips, they go in the ground later – making them perfect for planting in December.
This is because they are vulnerable to tulip fire, a fungal disease that distorts leaves and petals and causes the bulb to rot. The later you can plant all types of tulip, the colder the soil and the less chance there is that the bulbs will fall foul of the disease.
Plant your tulips in a sunny spot, in soil that is free-draining and has been enriched with compost or well-rotted manure. Place the bulbs at three times their own depth and a bulb's width apart, using the same placement if planting in containers.
Top tip: Plant dwarf varieties in your lawn or under trees with snowdrops and crocuses for a stunning spring display.
2. Hardy annuals
Nigella (or love-in-a-mist), cornflower, field poppies, marigolds and sweet peas are just some of the hardy annuals guaranteed to bring color and joy to the summer garden.
There are two ways of starting next year's annuals, and both methods have their pros and cons.
You can sow indoors and bring on the seedlings under cover, starting them in trays and then pricking them out and potting them on when they are large enough. You may get a healthy crop of seedlings, but it can be quite labor-intensive as they need constant monitoring, light and warmth and, of course, space when you start moving them on into their own pots.
You also have to make sure they are adequately ventilated, as a still, warm environment is a perfect breeding ground for fungal diseases, particularly damping off, which can kill off an entire tray of seedlings in one fell swoop.
When sowing inside, always use new or thoroughly washed seed trays, fresh seed compost, and fresh tap water. This will all help reduce the risk of seeds falling prey to fungal diseases.
The alternative is to sow them where you want them to grow, in soil that has been raked and weeded. This may seem less of a hassle, but seeds are at risk of rotting in the cold, wet soil, are vulnerable to being eaten by hungry rodents, and may be scattered by cats using the area as a litter tray.
You can find more advice on how to grow flowers from seed in our dedicated guide.
Top tip: Don’t worry if you have sown seeds too close together, you can thin out the seedlings when they have grown large enough to handle.
3. Winter scented shrubs
Summer doesn't have the monopoly on color and scent – in the cooler months there are plenty of options when it comes to the best winter flowering shrubs, and some are sweetly fragranced, too. Daphne odora, sweet box (Sarcococca confusa), witch hazels and wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) are all worthy of a spot in your garden.
If you have a small space and still want shrubs, plant them in large pots and situate them next to your front door or close to seating areas, where you can make the most of their beautiful flowers and sweet scent.
Top tip: Growing in pots will limit the size of the plant, and do remember to feed them regularly. Each spring, remove the top inch or so of compost and replace it with fresh.
4. Hardy cyclamen
Nothing says 'winter color' like the jewel-like tones of cyclamen. Whether you plant them as part of your winter and spring bedding display, or dot them in shaded areas of the garden where they gleam out of the dark, they are a truly seasonal delight.
Cyclamen coum and Cyclamen hederifolium are tuberous perennials, with sweet heart-shaped leaves and dainty flowers in shades of pink and white.
They like fertile, free-draining soil and should be planted at the same depth as the pots they have been grown in. Those used as plants for winter hanging baskets or pots as part of a bedding display can also be moved into the soil when the containers are needed for something else.
Top tip: When cyclamen come to reproduce, their circular seed pods appear on coiled stems that slowly unravel as they mature, gradually lowering the seeds to the ground for germination.
5. Blossom trees
December is a good time for planting bare root trees, which are widely available now, so why not usher some spring beauty into your garden by choosing a blossom tree or two?
Apples, pears and plums are some of the best flowering trees, but ornamental weeping cherries are truly stunning. Members of the amelanchier family will also wow, with sweet white flowers, scarlet berries and beautiful red and russet leaves in the fall.
Best of all, amelanchiers do not grow large, so are perfect if you're on the lookout for small garden ideas or a tree for a large container.
Plant them in fertile, free-draining soil and make sure they have enough room to grow.
Support young trees with a stake and tie for support and check the soil around the roots after every heavy frost. Freezing conditions can cause the soil to crack and lift, destabilizing new plantings.
Top tip: If you are looking for a small fruit tree for a patio container, check its rootstock (the base of the plant that governs its growth on which the top growth is grafted). Dwarf varieties are M27 and M9 for apples; quince C and A for pears and quinces; 'Pixy' for plums, gages and damsons; and G5 or Gisella 5 for cherry.
6. Spring bedding plants
Spring bedding is still on sale in garden centers, supermarkets and online, if you can fight your way through the festive fripperies.
Planted in December, it will bloom in time for Christmas and then sit quietly stretching out its roots and resting its top growth until the warmer weather arrives and it starts growing and blooming again.
Pansies, violas, cyclamen, and pompom bellis daisies create delicious spots of winter color and can be wonderfully offset by grasses, mini conifers and foliage plants set alongside them. Try them as part of your winter planter ideas to brighten up a patio or deck.
Remember to keep them healthy and productive by deadheading regularly and removing foliage that is past its best.
If you have previously grown pansies and violas that have fallen foul of the fungal disease leaf spot, which causes dark, greasy spots on the leaves, plant them elsewhere for at least three years after infections.
Top tip: you can also start sowing summer bedding including antirrhinums and petunias, though they need light and warmth to succeed.
7. Berry shrubs
Brightly shining holly berries are a traditional Christmas decoration, but there are other plants with equally beautiful winter seedpods.
Adding some plants with winter berries to your plot is a wonderful way to guarantee seasonal color. All shrubs can be planted in December, so roses that bear hips in winter, Euonymus fortuneii that has sweet orange berries, Callicarpa bodinieri with its vivid purple fruits and spiny cotoneasters and pyracanthas that are covered in fiery berries in autumn and winter can all be put in the ground now.
If you buy them bare root, you will be making a huge saving financially, though you may need to wait a year or two to get flowers and berries. Container-grown plants cost more but may give you a show this year or next.
Top tip: Only female holly bushes flower and although some are self-fertile, if you have a male plant within bee-flying distance for pollination, they will flower better. They do, though, take between 4–12 years to mature, so patience is important!
8. Evergreen ornamental grasses
Ornamental grasses add life and movement to the garden and are another top pick when it comes to what to plant in December. They break up borders, their fronds and seedheads whisper in the wind, and on frosty mornings their beauty is captured in ice.
Evergreen grasses such as members of the carex family and festuca clan will add year-round interest to your plot. They are elegant foils for brightly-colored bedding and perennials, and work well in pots too.
Tall types of ornamental grass create a focal point in the center of beds, while smaller mounding species are perfect for edging paths and creating border divisions.
Carex oshimensis 'Everest' has striking green and white blades, while Festuca glauca 'Elijah Blue' has gray-blue fronds and tall corn-colored flower heads.
They are easy to care for too, simply needing the dead fronds removed when they fade – though always wear gloves as they can be sharp. Our guide on how to grow ornamental grasses has lots more advice.
Top tip: Grasses like free-draining soil, so if yours is heavy clay, dig in lots of grit and well-rotted manure or compost before planting.
9. Hardy herbs
Every garden should have herbs and in winter it is the hardy, woody varieties that create a show.
Planted now, rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano will add color and scent through to the spring – and once they have matured there will be winter seasoning for all those glorious hearty casseroles and soups right on the doorstep.
Most woody herbs will thrive in less-than-perfect soil and are relatively free from pests, making them ideal for most gardens. They're brilliant for container gardening, too.
They can be harvested throughout the year once they are large enough and most just need a gentle trim after they have flowered to keep them in shape.
Top tip: Woody herbs grow attractively in pots and rosemary is traditionally grown close to front doors as a symbol of welcome and prosperity.
10. Perennial plants
As long as the ground isn't frozen or waterlogged, you can plant perennials now, though if your soil is heavy clay they will do best planted on low mounds of gritty soil and compost.
They won't grow much over the winter, though they may extend their roots between now and the start of the really harsh, cold weather than usually affects the UK in the new year. But, when next spring arrives and the temperatures rise, they will soon start to put on growth and should flower in summer.
Before buying, check the plant's labels to make sure you plant it in the right place, with enough space. If it has the wrong soil and conditions, your perennial won't thrive which can be very disheartening.
Plant it at the same depth as the pot you bought it in, carefully opening up the rootball with your thumbs to help the roots spread. Water it well once it's in the ground. Mulching the root area with well-rotted compost or manure will enrich the soil, insulate the roots and keep weeds at bay.
Top tip: Check plants in milder weather as aphids and other sap-sucking pests may start to prey on fresh young leaves and shoots.
Ruth is the gardening editor of Amateur Gardening magazine and spends her working days carrying out, writing about and photographing the tasks the readers should be carrying out each week, as well as testing many of the new products that arrive on the gardening market.
She is horticulturally trained, with a qualification from the Royal Horticultural Society, and her work varies with the seasons and includes everything from sowing and planting, to pruning, taking cuttings, dealing with pests and diseases and keeping houseplants healthy. She covers ornamental plants and edible crops and everything she writes about and photographs is in her own garden, a mature plot that has been a work in progress since her family moved to their current house in 2012.
Her main interests are gardening for wildlife and organic gardening, as she firmly believes you don’t need to ‘nuke’ pests and problems with toxic chemicals, nor use peat composts to produce the garden of your dreams.
Angela Scanlon reveals she came to this realization working on Your Garden Made Perfect
Gardens The garden makeover show is soon making a return
By Millie Hurst • Published
Gardening writer and broadcaster Peter Seabrook has died aged 86
Gardens Tributes have poured in for BBC gardening presenter and Amateur Gardening columnist Peter Seabrook
By Rebecca Knight • Published