It’s time to tidy up – but not too much
We’ve experienced an incredibly mild first half of November 2022, with high temperatures abounding. This mild winter isn’t directly related to climate change, though: it’s linked to the jet stream bringing warm air up from the Azores towards our mild islands. So while it may feel unusual, and climate change generally will mean more extremes of weather, there’s no good to be gained from feeling worried about it. I hope you enjoyed and savoured each day you could.
The temperatures have now plummeted. It’s now time to tidy up - but not too much!
While we humans may spend more time indoors during this season, we are the exception rather than the rule. Insects, mammals and birds will continue to go about their lives outdoors, come what may. They still need food, and shelter from the harshest elements of the weather, or a safe place to overwinter or hibernate.
That’s where we humans can help.
Let leaves remain on your beds and borders – they will rot down and provide food while they do so. They also provide shelter for insects. If you’re worried about slugs and snails, leaving more leaves around will actually encourage natural pests such as frogs to move in. Spare leaves can be used to make leaf mould. Here's a simple guide on how to do just that.
If your herbaceous plants go mushy and rot at the first sign of frost, cut them down to approx 8cm off the ground and compost the remains. For the other plants that are still standing tall, let them be! Plants with square stems like verbena bonariensis are used by insects as overwintering spots. Seed heads provide valuable food for birds, as well as looking beautiful in the soft light.
These verbena bonariensis will go increasingly brown over winter; but the hollow stems provide a safe haven for insects. And the seed heads look banging if there's a frost.
There are a few plants that need a trim now to avoid wind rock. These are plants like woody salvias such as the very popular “hot lips” series. After the hot summer we’ve had, they may be large and overflowing now. Cut off the top third growth - and this is the tough bit - even if there are still flowers on it. This will reduce the plants’ tendency to rock in the wind. In winter this can lead to water getting down into the root system, and a sudden frost can then kill the root system completely. I tend to leave the bundles of flowers out in the garden for the bees to have one last feast.
Cut-off salvia branches having a second life propped up in the wisteria. Still full of nectar for bees and other insects.
The one area where it is really worth being clean and tidy is in cleaning up your gardening equipment. We are seeing more pests and diseases thriving in the mild winters, and this makes bio-security all the more important. If you are fortunate enough to have a greenhouse, give it a thorough clean. Wash all your pots and containers in warm water and detergent. Clean all your tools to avoid spreading viruses or fungal infections from plant to plant. Even simple things like a gardening bucket can do with an annual clean to stop fungal spores from mildews spreading.
You don't need a special brush - I just use an old nailbrush and washing up liquid for small pots. Larger ones I tackle with old kitchen sponges.
Have a hosepipe? If you can store it in a shed or garage, do so. Harsh frosts can degrade the inner lining of the pipe, which make it more susceptible to crumbling and failing on the first use in 2023.
A simple yet satisfying job is cleaning secateurs. Coat them liberally in tomato ketchup, wrap in cling film and leave for a couple of days. The ketchup has an almost ideal balance of vinegar without being too abrasive. They’ll come out clear of gunk and ready for when you next need to use them. Trust me, it works a treat.
Want to get your garden spring ready? Contact me for a chat about how I can help you improve your garden, without costing the earth.
A version of this article first appeared in the Basingstoke Observer. All rights reserved.