In theory, I am all in favour of not going for a major autumn tidy-up in the garden. Many people like to ‘put the garden to bed’ some time in late October, once the dahlias and late-summer colours have done their thing. There is a certain appeal in the neatness which ensues, and the way it allows early spring to manifest itself unencumbered: snowdrops pushing through clean, bare earth. And it does allow you both to get a heavy mulch on to borders before the winter sets in, and to have plenty of clear ground for planting spring bulbs.
However, taking a different approach, and leaving herbaceous plants to die back naturally has many – I think, more – advantages. Firstly, many plants will keep going longer than you might imagine. There were dahlias and antirrhinums flowering well into November – a pleasure which an autumn tidy would have cut short. Secondly, leaving stems and seed heads is good for wildlife – providing food, shelter, even spots to tuck away and hibernate. And third – and the point of this post, perhaps – it provides some interest through the winter. There can be great beauty in the way low sunlight catches the browns and yellows of dying foliage, or the way frost gently seizes an Eryngium head or a spider’s web between two stems of Verbena – that image so beloved of the gardening magazines. Bare soil never quite catches the eye in the same way.
This is the approach we take at Horatio’s Garden, where generally we cut back very late in the winter – in fact we’re still doing it now; last year it was well into February. The patients and visitors need to see shape and colour in the garden, even – perhaps most of all – on a dreary January day.
And yet. This winter has been so mild, wet and windy that it’s challenged this approach for me, at least in my own garden. We’ve had no snow at all, and hardly any proper frosts, certainly no prolonged cold spells. I’ve just spent the day clearing and tidying the borders, and regretting that I didn’t do it in November – so much wet mush and soggy mess, foliage turned the texture of dishcloth and soaked paper. It’s unpleasant to the eye, and even more unpleasant to gather up by the handful. Most frustratingly, swamped by some of this gunge are emerging snowdrops, hellebores and primroses – which are now free to enjoy their moment, no longer surrounded by decay and sodden brownery.
Maybe – if mild, wet winters are the anthropocene future here in southern England – I’ll have to rethink the approach…