It used to be that gardeners took to the garden in autumn with a mad glint in their eyes, secateurs and shears at the ready, cutting everything back to leave a tidy, if somewhat bleak, space. And this is how the garden would spend winter, stripped back to its bare bones. Then came the vogue for prairie-style planting inspired by Dutch designer Piet Oudolf and the ‘new naturalism’ movement in Germany and Holland. Late-season flowering perennials such as rudbeckias, heleniums, sedums and eupatoriums filtered into our gardens and we were encouraged to embrace their faded silhouettes which look magnificent covered in frost. Alongside this has been an increased interest in making our gardens wildlife friendly. We’ve became more aware of how we garden and the impact on the creatures which share our outdoor spaces.
I love those frosty winter days where everything sparkles. It’s a magical scene to see the flattened flower heads of sedums crispy with frost and the delicate grasses of Anemanthele lessoniana glistening as if dusted with glitter, but, and it’s quite a big but, these days seem few and far between in my Welsh garden. Thanks to the milder air of the Gulf Stream winters tend to be dull and damp, and damp is not good for the arty, frost-covered look. By the time any frost arrives many of my plants have been battered by gales and lashed by rain, and instead of a scene of delicate fading beauty I have a patch of soggy, tangled plant material that will never look good in frost.
It’s not all about the aesthetics though, some plants shouldn’t be cut back until spring if you want them to regrow next year. Warm climate grasses in particular should be left until March to be cut back.
So what’s a gardener to do? Well, my strategy is to do a bit of everything. I’ll cut back the messiest of plants now, clearing space around evergreens and my topiary balls. I trim back anything which has flopped and died inelegantly over the paths. These simple jobs give the garden a cleaner structure for winter. Any fabulous seed heads or skeletal flowers are left until after Christmas – some make great pickings for decorations. By the time the New Year arrives however, they’ll be looking past their best and no amount of frost will make them look attractive. And you can’t beat a day in the garden in January cutting back and tidying up – it’s good for a gardener’s spirit to get out and do something when they’ve been cooped up over Christmas and are aching to start gardening again.
I try not to be too fussy about clearing the soil. There is an argument that leaf litter gives slugs somewhere to hide. It undoubtedly does, but it also provides somewhere for all those beneficial creatures such as ladybirds to hunker down – a refuge from the worst of the winter weather. A layer of leaves will also help to protect the soil from winter deluges which can cause erosion. So get out there and spruce up your garden for winter, but don’t be too ruthless with those secateurs.