This year I am leaving undone that, which text books suggest, by now we ought to have done. In other words, I have decided I am not cutting back, down or off stems, seed heads or anything with a potential flower left on it. Yes, I know that there is frost around and that it is a few weeks to the shortest day (and counting) but surely this is the time when our wildlife need sanctuary and the offering of an unexpected seed or nectar source the most?
I appreciate that as a result of such treatment the borders are more than a touch untidy and that, if I look closely, there is the occasional nettle with triffid tendencies, but under those leaves and inside those hollow stems are all sort of tiny bugs and other creatures and I have seen solitary bees working their way through the hardy salvias which are still putting on a brave show. These insects are the source of next year’s broods which will deal with our greenfly and other aphids, feed our birds and create our compost. As a result, I believe that while my borders make me think of unmade beds, until the frost turns all to slumped chaos, I will leave my stalks and grasses bravely upright, enjoying the light through the silvery Miscanthus heads, the Michaelmas daisies and sedums (OK, they all have fancy new names now but I’m heading for Christmas so indulge me), and the rustle of drying leaves. The clematis will remain unpruned to provide shelter for wrens and robins, as well as those wonderful catherine-wheel seed heads. This form of benign neglect offers the added bonus of movement and texture in the winter garden. If all is cut back and tucked up under its mulch duvet then the whole site can feel static.
So having given yourself a bit of down-time, here are the things you should be doing in your garden instead:
If you have staked trees, check the tension of the rubber strap which holds the stake to the tree to make sure it is not too tight after the tree has put on its summer growth
Check roses for wind rock – if they seem loose, resist the temptation to shove a bit of compost up against the main stem and push it with a boot – it just wont work. Instead, gently remove the surrounding soil until you can see where the gap is around the roots and then fill in with compost and manure, packing it in and pressing it down until the rose feels firm again
Go round your hellebores and snip off the old tough leaves, leaving the new ones and revealing the new flowers as they come through
Check shrubs for crossing stems and deal with them now – there is no point in waiting for them to rub holes in each other. At the same time, take out any dead or diseased material.
Brush leaves off lawns onto borders if you don’t have a leaf pit for making leaf mould. The worms will be happy and the blackbirds will merrily toss the leaves back onto the lawn again
Don’t forget to weed through the borders occasionally. Mild days mean that tough weeds such as speedwell will germinate and you really don’t want them to get a grip if you can help it
Dead-head violas and other flowering plants in pots and do remember to water any shrubs in containers; even though it may have rained, large shrubs shed the moisture over the sides of their pots and thus may not get all the water they need.
Nature is incredibly generous and there is never a time when there is nothing in flower here in Sussex. We already have Iris Unguicularis and Virburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’, and the first hellebores have been spotted. The winter box and honeysuckle will be out soon, there are pale green spears of snowdrops starting to show and once these are out I can shear off the shattered remains of my perennials and grasses with a clear conscience. We will be mulching late this winter, but gardens rarely keep to a strict timetable so why should we?
Have a beautiful, warm and happy Christmas and may 2018 be kind to us all.