Read this before you embark on the great garden tidy!
David Hurrion, Associate Editor of BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine, reflects on our changed attitude to getting the garden ready for winter, which may have unseen benefits for you and your plot.
As the first frosts blacken foliage and put an end to the last blooms in your garden, there’s a great temptation to cut everything back and tidy the garden in an attempt to put it to bed for the winter. The last summer bedding plants pulled out; herbaceous plants cut back to within an inch of their life; fallen leaves raked up and soil forked through to get rid of all your footprints and the last weeds; wayward shrubs pruned. The trouble is that the result of all this meticulous attention is not always good for you, your plants or the wildlife that you share your plot with.
End of season gardening was always seen as an exercise in confirming to 20th century ideas of hygiene, and satisfying the requirements of the human ‘tidiness’ gene. But thankfully we’ve started to realise that chopping things back too soon leaves the garden looking bereft, especially after all the exuberance of summer and autumn. Added to that is the fact that we like to get out and use our gardens more and don’t want to look at bare soil and a few twigs. Leaving the dead seedheads and stems of plants in our borders brings subtleties of form and colour that is easy to appreciate. The ghostly outlines gradually take on a greyish silver tone as all the pigment is sucked from the desiccated growth, and provide a wonderful contrast to the evergreen foliage, berries and a smattering of winter blooms.
But it’s not only the visual appeal of the garden that can be enhanced by leaving the secateurs in the shed. The majority of herbaceous border plants will benefit from the protection that their stems give against penetrating winter cold – whether they are bone hardy or on the verge of being tender. After all, that’s what happens in nature. Here nature does the job in a sensible way, leaving the stems in place to weather by the action of frost and alternate wetting and drying through the winter, so that they finally disintegrate in spring as growth restarts. It’s all part of the decomposition process and all you really need to do is tailor your actions to suit this, wielding the secateurs at the end of the winter and consigning the partly broken down remains to the compost heap. Here the recycling process can take place to completion and you have tidied your borders just in time for them to be refilled with growth.
And last but by no means least, there is the huge benefit that these plant remains have for wildlife. The stems provide an overwinter refuge for the eggs and pupae of all manner of insects, while the fallen foliage creates a soil surface mulch under which beetles, spiders and all manner of soil organisms, as well as amphibians and small mammals can escape the worst of the cold. This web of life will produce its fair share of plant pests, but also a whole host of things that will eat them, and they all need somewhere to hunker down till next spring. Cut out all the old stems and you take them all out; instead leave everything till spring and you’ll maintain a balance that is good for your whole garden and the natural balance of our environment.