Unless I’m re-designing a part of the garden, then I do not bother cutting down perennials or clearing up old foliage. In fact, I’m an advocate of leaving it in situ, because plant debris provides shelter for insects in the winter months. Come spring and summer, many of those insects will earn their keep in the garden, so it is wise to look after them now. Sure, the garden will look less manicured, but you are spending comparatively little time out there during the depths of winter, whereas the wildlife is using it as housing.
One exception to the tidying-up rule is removing the more thuggish perennial weeds. For example, I have a running battle with nettles, which still seem to be going strong when everything else is dying back and are usually one of the first to pop their heads above the soil after Christmas.
Plant now or in spring?
As long as the ground is not frozen, autumn is a good planting time, especially for trees and shrubs. But again, it is not essential as long as you get your act together in early spring and in some instances, it is better to wait anyway. If the ground is very heavy clay, likely to be waterlogged or even flooded, then it is definitely safer to plant in the spring.
Better use of time is to prepare yourself for the first heavy frosts, which can take even the most experienced of gardeners by surprise. A balmy week can suddenly become very cold at this time of year. So, on a very practical note, make sure you have got fleece or hessian cut to size and quickly to hand to protect tender plants, such as bananas or the crowns of tree ferns.
Time to relax and take stock
I’ll also use my reduced time in the garden this month to make note about what I want to change in the spring. I’ll sit on a garden chair on a sunny cold morning, with a steaming cup of coffee and my notebook, and I’ll look at my plot with an unhurried eye. As the foliage falls, I can see the framework so much better and can think about how I can improve the garden’s design next year. As I sit there, enjoying the quiet, I may or may not get inspiration for new ideas for 2010, but I’ll definitely jot down which plants need to be moved (if I haven’t done so already), which ones need dividing, and where I need more of a particular variety. This aide memoire will be very useful come early spring when I’ll be so enthusiastic about the new gardening year.
And for me, this is what autumn is all about. Taking stock and giving myself a break from the demands of the garden. After all, by early next year, I will be back in manic planning mode, knowing that for the next eight months, I’ll be busy outside. And I’ll love every second of it. But by doing the bare minimum in November and December, I will return to my beloved plot in the New Year, refreshed and ready to fall in love with it all over again.
By Maxine Farmer
Maxine Farmer: Garden Writer & Consultant
Maxine Farmer is a professional writer and garden designer, and has had articles published in The Daily Telegraph, Housebuilder & Renovation, and the RHS’ members magazine, The Garden.
She developed her passion for making the most of challenging gardens by moving to a riverside plot that not only floods regularly, but is often bone dry in summer. Since the mid-1990s, she and her husband John have experimented with plants that are able to survive these extremes. The garden has been featured in national newspapers and magazines.
Maxine has also created a website for fellow gardeners who have gardens that flood: www.thefloodedgarden.com. She occasionally provides gardening consultancy and is available to speak at garden clubs.