Expert tips on putting your garden to bed for the winter
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When I think of a winter garden I think of evergreen structure and seed heads dusted with frost backed by a clear crystal blue sky with the sharp early morning light glinting through.
Our winters are now so unpredictable in the UK and certainly in South East England that we cannot guarantee those crisp cold sunny mornings that warrant planting a garden solely for its winter seed heads.
If you have designed a garden which is full of late summer flowering plants then this year you have probably enjoyed colour right up to the recent frosts at the beginning of November. The Rudbeckia and late flowering roses seem to have done very well this year in several gardens I have visited and are still flowering even now.
In my own garden many plants with winter structure have crept into the planting palette but my garden errs on the damp side in places and plants that should look good during the winter months in a ‘crispy dead’ sort of way just look ‘soggy dead’ instead. So this year I have hardened my heart and I am going to cut it all down before the cold really sets in, feed it and mulch it with well rotted manure to prepare it for the summer next year.
I will miss the golden buff Miscanthus and Hydrangea and I will certainly leave some of the berried plants for the birds. It will look ever so bare over the winter but I can cope with that if I know the garden is getting ready for next year under its blanket of ‘black gold’.
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Normally I leave everything standing to protect the crowns of the plants and don’t cut it down until the middle of January but a 5cm mulch of organic matter will give the same effect and if you can get it on the ground while the soil is still warm then all the better.
This practice is also useful if you have a garden with plants that are generous with their seeds (Verbena, Lythrum, Althaea and Papaver to name a few). A thick mulch can help quash unwanted seedlings next year, it wont get them all but since the Verbena I have seed in their thousands, I am hoping it will do for quite a lot of them.
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The same goes for tender plants or those with very fleshy stems; Zantadeschia aethiopica, Gunnera and Rheum especially benefit from a mulch in cold gardens and a layer of straw and manure keep the worst of the winter wet away from them as well as keeping the surrounding soil from freezing too hard. As with all mulch, just keep it away from the stems of the plant to avoid rotting them.
If you garden in a Mediterranean way with gravel and scree then adding more gravel to the garden gives the same effect as an organic mulch. It obviously won’t feed the plants but most of these plants are quite happy on a lean diet and don’t require the boost.
Other jobs that you might like to tackle before and during the winter:
Tie in climbing plants to make sure they are secure and the wind doesn’t damage them over the winter; this is especially important for climbing roses.
Rake up autumnal fallen leaves out of the borders and off lawns and compost to provide an organic mulch next year. Leafmould is a great soil improver and information about how best to make this can be found at www.rhs.org.uk.
Clean your pots. It isn’t the most pleasurable of jobs but will help to keeps pests and diseases at bay next year. If you are lucky enough to have somewhere frost free to store them, do so after cleaning.
Plan for next year, whether it’s a landscaping project, vegetable garden or simply a new herbaceous planting plan inspired by a seed catalogue, www.chilternseeds.co.uk.
We aren’t the only animals to use our gardens and if the winter is harsh provide food for birds in your garden (safe and away from pets and other animals) and keep doing so regularly until the weather warms up. You can find out more at www.rspb.org.uk.
To find out more about Kate, visit www.kategouldgardens.com.