Gardening in the winter, whenever the weather’s good enough, will make a huge difference to your plot next year, whether it’s mowing the lawn for the last time, sharpening up the lawn edges, cutting battered plants back to ground level, or sorting out the shed. You can also get on top of the weeds and they’ll come up easily now. When spring arrives, you’ll be ready for the off.
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What to cut back and what to leave
The one thing you don’t want to do is put the whole garden to bed and end up with a completely bare plot. This is bad for the gardener, because it looks so depressing, and it’s also bad for wildlife because there’s no shelter to be had. It’s a balancing act and you need to decide which bits of the garden need cutting down and which can be left to sparkle in the frost and low winter sunlight.
Where to start
When it comes to cutting down, priority should be given to those areas where spring bulbs are due to flower - whether it’s tulips, daffodils or more diminutive spring bulbs. It’s important to do this by early November. If you leave it any later you’ll be trampling on bulbs lying just below the soil’s surface. Daffodils, for instance, start into growth as soon as the autumn rains fall and then the buds lurk just underneath the soil. The sooner you can get onto those bulb-filled areas, the better. Arm yourself with a pair of hand shears and I’m a great fan of Jakoti hand shears because they’re easy to handle and the carbon steel blades remain sharp. Secateurs take twice as long – at least!
Remove tattered foliage
Spring and summer-flowering plants are likely to look tired by November and that’s a sure sign that they’re entering a period of winter dormancy, so it’s safe to cut them back. Phloxes, campanulas, astrantias, nepetas, summer-flowering peonies and aquilegias can all be cut back now.
Leave fading stems
Any grasses and perennials flowering in late summer and autumn usually have tall woody stems. These include all asters, rudbeckias, monardas, sanguisorbas, tall grasses, golden rod, aconitiums, echinaceas, miscanthus, molinias and eupatoriums. Remove the seed heads if they’re a worry and just leave the stems. Their nooks and crannies will provide refuge for insect life and any wrens and other insect-eating birds will really appreciate this. In wet weather you’ll get an autumn palette of khaki, brown and black and, when frost descends, the whole area will look magical.
Leave any good foliage
If you’ve got good foliage in November, don’t cut it off now. Allow it to shine in winter and tidy it when it gets tattered. Hardy ferns, pulmonarias, epimediums, hellebores, evergreen grasses, vincas, some spring-flowering hardy geraniums, primroses and biennial honesty, foxgloves and sweet Williams all shine now. Tidy as they fade.
Leave silvers until spring
Many silvery plants are woody, Mediterranean subshrubs primed to grow in winter in their native habitat. These plants need their foliage to shield them from the worst of wintry weather because they are not as hardy as many plants. Cutting them back hard now will lead to losses, because they’ll produce soft new growth in late autumn. This will be killed off by cold weather and some plants may never recover. Lavenders, sages, woody salvias, artemisias, phlomis and perovskia should be tidied up next April when the worst of the weather is over.
Leave southern hemisphere foliage
Southern hemisphere plants, such as crocosmias and red hot pokers or kniphofias survive most winters unscathed if the foliage is left intact through winter and spring. Don’t be tempted to trim these back however ragged they may look. Wait until late April. Penstemons also need to be left intact until the following spring. Wait until there’s plenty of new basal growth.
Leave hedges alone
Don’t cut fruitful hedges, like hawthorn, until the fruit’s been eaten and the birds have nested.
Leave interesting seed heads
Leave anything with an interesting seed head, such as sedums, origanums, verbascums and achilleas. They add form, texture and line and the birds may well feast on the seeds.
The golden rule
Use your judgement – if it’s fading cut it back. If it’s still looking good, leave it. Anything that flops when the weather turns colder needs to be cut down. Persicarias, for instance, always go to mush.
Mulch tender plants
If you’ve got something tender or a southern hemisphere plant in your garden, planted in a sheltered hot spot, be aware that it’s winter wet that tends to kill things rather than low temperatures. Apply grit round these plants, to help drainage, and this will improve their chances of survival. Dieramas, diascias, red hot pokers, agapanthus, alstroemerias pennisetums and early-flowering species peonies – such as Paeonia cambessedesii – have much more chance of surviving a cold winter tucked under a thick gravel mulch. You can also fleece tender plants, such as tree ferns and ornamental bananas, using thick horticultural fleece.
It’s winter wet that tends to kill things rather than low temperatures
Lots of annual weeds pop up with the September rains and it’s an easy job to weed them out now, before they flower. It’s also one of the best times to tackle perennial weeds. They’re easy to see and they also come up far more easily than they do in summer. Dandelions taken up now will save you work next spring.
You may have to cut the lawn in November now that we get warmer autumns. Take the setting up a notch so that you don’t scalp your lawn. Recut the edges, using a moon -shaped lawn edger, to create a deep vertical edge. Remove any weed seedlings and debris and trim the edge should it need it. Having clean cut edges to your lawn improves the look of the garden in winter.
Make sure you leave some of your garden undisturbed because leaves and moss are the building blocks for hedgehog hibernaula and birds’ nests. The leaf litter is like an insect duvet so by all means remove leaves from borders and lawns but keep some wilder edges.
Sort out the shed
Sheds get untidy during the growing season and tools get put away without being cleaned and not necessarily in the right places. This is the time to spruce them up and put them away properly. A damp bucket of coarse sand is a fantastic idea near the door. Plunge any tools into the bucket, after use, and this will help to clean them. Wooden handles can be nourished with linseed oil. Sharpen blades and secateurs.
Check all the garden sundries and make sure you’ve got plenty of labels, string, canes and plant supports. Make a list and go shopping straight after Christmas when the garden centres restock.
Go through all your pots and seed trays and discard any that are broken. Wash plastic pots and seed trays on clement days. If the weather is kind lay them out to dry. Clay pots can also be washed now.
Find out more about giving your shed a winter tidy
If you buy plants in winter
It’s always best to keep potted plants in a sheltered position and plant them once you feel spring is on the way. A house wall usually suffices because you get residual warmth and shelter from heavy rain.
If you lose something?
When spring comes you may have a gap and if it’s a slightly tender plant (like a hardy fuchsia, or a salvia, or an alstroemeria) it’s really worth waiting to see whether it comes back from the depths. Plants can reappear as late as June.
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