Way back in Autumn, I was suggesting that there is no hurry to tidy up the beds, but suggested that leaving the great tidy-up until Spring was beneficial in many ways. I see gardens where every speck of dead leaf material has been removed, and the garden looks so neat and tidy, or to put it my way, looks like mud.
Lets look at the benefits of not being too tidy. First, many plants like Crocosmia need a good mulch to protect the corms from the ravages of winter. Their dead and dying foliage is the perfect mulch to protect from frost. Come Spring, when the new foliage begins to grow through this mulch, it is so easy to remove it.
Many of our plants, particularly those perennials that originate in temperate zones, start to produce next year’s growth from their basal nodes, and require the dying stems as an energy source to generate this new growth. Plants like Echinacea, Phlox etc are among this group. Cut the stems back to the ground too soon, then there is less material for the plant to feed on.
Our semi-evergreen and evergreen plants like Penstemon require leaves through winter to survive. Cut them back hard in the Autumn and you almost certainly will kill them. Cut them back after the new year’s growth is showing and they will live for decades. However, it is important that with all these plants, they are reduced in height in the Autumn to prevent wind-rock. If you want to kill Penstemon, Lavender or Perovskia, leave them at full summer height through the gales of winter. They will crack at their base then rot. I cut mine down by a half.
Our beneficial insects seek out the hollow stems of perennials to over-winter. It’s amazing how many lacewings and ladybirds survive the harshest winters simply by finding the right place to sleep. And equally, amazing how many good gardeners kill them simply because they want to be ‘tidy’.
All that decaying leaf material lying on the soil acts as a weed suppressor. If you cleaned one bed but left an identical bed with its leaf material in tact over winter, firstly, the uncleaned bed will have far less weed in the Spring. Secondly, that leaf material has been created by extracting valuable minerals from the soil. By leaving it over winter, nature will reclaim the minerals back into the soil. Remove the dead material and you remove those nutrients. I don’t understand those people who spend their time cleaning everything up, then more time and money by putting mulch back on the soil.
Finally, erosion! Mulch goes a long way to preventing soil erosion by softening the effect of raindrops hitting the soil. We are on clay, and our very thin topsoil is valuable, so by leaving the dead material in tact through winter, not only do we preserve the topsoil, we improve it and deepen it through the activity of worms.
Needless to say, right now, our 2 acre garden looks a bit of a mess, but by the end of February, a reasonably simply clean-up will give me a better start to the year. There are some plant, like Monarda do need to be kept free from leaf material to prevent the crowns from rotting, but there aren’t that many plants that suffer in that way.
The nursery is closed from November until the start of March, but I still have to look at it, and invariably, we do get visitors turning up, so I have a few rules that I try to stick to. Primarily, I try to plant as many evergreen perennials as possible, and when I have a choice between herbaceous and evergreen, you’ve guessed it, I choose evergreens. Even plants like Francoa, and in particular, F. sonchifolia look really good through winter. Next, I like to have as many plants as possible that leave something to look at during the winter months. It might be the skeletal framework, or seed-heads, anything with form. These plants help to punctuate the beds so even in deepest winter, I still know where things are.
Last year, we recorded 75 species of wild birds at the nursery, this winter I’ve been really surprised how many are still in the gardens. Many birds that are difficult to find in January seem to be happy here, and I think it’s because we have so much going on, even in the dead of winter. Reed Buntings, Willow Tits, Siskins, Bramblings, the flocks of Long Tail Tits and Goldfinches, so much that is more than just plants, simply because we don’t rush to clean up.
But Spring is just 6 weeks away, then the work starts. Just as well that the days are getting longer. Just wish it would stop raining.