Putting the garden to bed-or not

Putting the garden to bed – or not   Winter garden, preparation for winter, garden ready for winter, put garden to bed,  gardener Bourne End, Marlow, Taplow, Wooburn Green gardener

Most garden owners are fairly individual about what they want and expect from their gardens. But the one things they seem to come together about is the tradition of “putting the garden to bed”. It’s a tradition that harks back to the days when winters were actually cold. And they may still be in some parts of the country, but where we garden in South Buckinghamshire a proper frost is now a rare thing.

All gardens are not the same

There are pros and cons to the idea. Certainly there are some plants that are a mess and offer little winter structure. There are others that do maintain some order and structure; we used to leave them so they’d look nice when frosted – see earlier point. And there are those that do offer some benefit to wildlife, seed heads or berries for food, or collapsed cover that provides shelter. So the argument for putting the garden to bed is not straightforward.

So while I don’t think that the herbaceous border should be left in its entirety, more can be left than tradition dictates. What this does in effect is spread the task of preparing beds for the spring flush of growth over a longer period.  It also enables better and easier identification when they start growing again.

Vulnerable plants

Those plants most likely to be affected are the annuals, and tender perennials. When it does get cold – last year it was into December – they turn black and a frost of any depth will turn them to mush. Also included should be Cannas, Callas, Dahlias  and Tithonia. But I no linger worry about lifting and storing these away in the shed or garage. Five years ago I was still lifting, but now the tubers thrive in the developed ground, and get a later but stronger start when the ground warms.  Other potential contenders are gladiolus. But where they are left in situ it is worth adding a mulch layer to protect and nutrify.

Putting the garden to bed
Dahlias should be cut back when blackened by frost, and either lifted or left depending on where you are in the UK

Perennials that can be cut back include hemerocallis, crocosmia,, phlox, lysimachia. Amongst those I tend to leave are helianthus, rudbeckia and echinacea.

Points to keep in mind in putting the garden to bed

There is no hard and fast rule I apply in partially putting the garden to bed. I just remove what is contributing little, keep what can make a difference to wildlife, and any relatively strong structure. Mulch where protection is required, but eave the majority of the mulching for when the final clear down is done in January or February, depending on how hard the winter actually was.

Knowing roughly when the last frost is going to be would be useful, but some clever persons has though t of it. You can use this tool to find your location and discover the average date of a last frost. Fantastic!

More important but not on most gardeners list is to add mulch to the borders.  This is more easily done into the late winter or early spring, when you can see where returning perennials are.  And you’ll also any seedlings from last year annuals that can be relocated, or just left to be natural.

  • Clear blackened tender plants, mark location and mulch
  • Cut back anything untidy that does not offer shelter or food
  • Leave plants with seeds or berries that contribute to wildlife
  • Leave anything that maintains structure
  • When it is finally cleared, mulching  the borders will provide a protecting nutrient layer. This will be worked into the soil to improve it throughout the year.
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