A winter’s tale
Sort the compost, raise the pots, turn leaves into rich leaf mould and get some outside fairy lights
GARDENS can look soggy and depressing at this time of year but that’s a great excuse to have a good tidy. There is something satisfying about clearing away the slimy leaves and prepping the place for spring.
It is the little things that count. Get your pots off the ground, otherwise the compost will get waterlogged and any plants or bulbs in it could rot and die. Even a pot with a hole in the base can’t drain if it’s on a solid surface such as a table or paving.
Remove any saucers under outside pots, because what was helpful in the heat of summer is a death trap now. You can use anything that will raise pots slightly off the ground. There are terracotta or plastic pot feet designed just for the job — see Amei “planter’s feet” from connox.co.uk, 12 for £16, or Homebase’s pack of three pot feet in terracotta for £1.97. I used to use bricks but getting the pot level can be tricky. The budget option is to use corks from empty wine bottles, which works quite well.
City gardeners with pots often wonder what to do with the old compost once they have thrown out the annuals. But do you really have to throw it all out and buy fresh every year? Bags of compost are heavy to lug up steps and through houses in London.
Rather than replacing all the compost in your pots every year, Jenny Bowden of the Royal Horticultural Society recommends tipping out half — removing as many old roots as you can — and topping up with new stuff. The old can be chucked into a compost bin or on the borders.
Then plant cyclamen, calocephalus, heather and tulips in the pots to transform the scene. There’s no point in storing open bags of compost from last summer either, as multipurpose compost runs out of nutrients after six weeks, and will lose its structure after a year.
If you have trees in your garden or overhanging it, the leaves they have been dropping over the past few weeks are not just slimy things to slip on, they’re a potential treasure trove. Leave the ones under hedges for hibernating hedgehogs — you never know — then fill bin bags with the rest, poke a few holes in the sides, tie them up and sling them somewhere you can’t see them, perhaps behind a shed or hedge. In a year you will have lovely, sweet-smelling leaf mould that you can spread on your garden beds. It’ll be crumbly, well-drained and healthy. Speed up the gathering process with a Bin Bag Loader, priced £6.95 from littlefieldsfarm.com. It’s a nifty rigid plastic tube that keeps the bag open so you have both hands free for loading.
Autumn is traditionally the time to cut back old brown stems on your plants so that the garden goes into winter pared down and tidy. The fashion for now is a more relaxed approach. Leaving a few dead stems and seedheads is not only helpful to winter wildlife, they can look fabulous frosted, or backlit by low winter sun.
Tender plants such as tree ferns and bananas should be wrapped in hessian or fleece just about now. But if you grow herbs, this doesn’t have to be the end of the season. If possible bring potted basil, tarragon, chives and mint inside to a windowsill and they will continue to grow. Other Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano can be left outside, but if they’re in pots move them close to the house so they don’t get too much rain.
AS CHRISTMAS is coming, add a touch of joy to the garden with some simple outside lights. Just a string of fairy or festoon lights draped on a fence or a shed, or between trees or posts is all you need to create a magical winter scene. Check out Ikea’s well-priced range or try Festoon Outdoor Line Lights from John Lewis at £60 for a line of 10 bulbs. Fairy lights wrapped all the way up the trunk of a small tree or threaded through evergreen shrubs will lift everyone’s spirits on a murky winter’s evening.
Rope in the family: even teenagers can help to clear the decks ready for spring
Help hedgehogs: they hibernate in leaf piles under hedges
Sweep clean: bag up slimy leaves and give pots some TLC
Stripped-back and striking: Turkish sage seedheads