Five winter jobs
Do these five jobs and you’ll survive the season in style, says Alys Fowler
Stop the rot
Tough stems that have dried standing upright will survive much of the cold season (their bleached seed heads are one of the joys of a winter garden), but if a perennial starts to slime and rot after the first kiss of a frost, you might as well whip it away to the compost. Many perennials don’t like the crown (where the stem joins the root) to be covered with rotting material in winter, particularly with wet matter such as mats of autumn leaves, as this can cause rot to travel into the roots and kill the plant. If you don’t want to remove this organic matter because you would rather the worms do the work, gently brush to the side any material sitting on top of the plant. The downside of this method is that rotting material is slug heaven. If you have anything nearby to protect, such as winter vegetables, you are better off removing this material to the compost and replacing it with well-rotted stuff.
The reality of leaving tougher stems standing is that some things will make it through winter and others will get bashed about. It’s tempting to want to cut this back midwinter. Insects, however, don’t care how your garden looks and having their winter home cut back is brutal. Ladybirds, for instance, love to tuck up in nooks and crannies or stems. If you must tidy up, examine what you cut back with care.
Feed the birds
Birds are always a joy but in winter, when little else is stirring, they bring the garden to life. Attracting them now has other benefits, too: they will clear up leftovers and anything remotely sweet will be gobbled up. Supplement with fat balls and bird feeders if necessary – remember that bird feeders need to be cleaned and disinfected regularly. If you establish in winter that your garden is worth a visit, the birds will keep coming in spring when you need them as pest control. At least have a bird bath – it should be shallow and placed where the birds can escape from cats.
Plant cheerful bedding
I’m not the biggest fan of winter bedding plants – too many questionable colour schemes – but I do have a soft spot for bedding violas: those cheery Johnny Jump Up types with smiling faces in orange and purple, or the more refined white versions for stylish window boxes. Buy a tray, preferably grown in peat-free compost, and fill every empty pot you’ve got. You can recycle the compost left over from pots of tomatoes by adding a scant hand of organic chicken manure or comfrey pellets. I like to arrange the violas on my garden table, around the back door and where I can see them as I wash up. Sow garlic and broad beans
This is the last moment to get garlic in this year. You’ll have to race to the shops to buy it, and be ruthless about checking all the bulbs in the packet – they should feel plump and heavy. Garlic likes rich, well-drained soil. If you don’t have that, plant it on a ridge to aid drainage. Plant individual cloves 18-25cm apart, with the top of the clove covered with at least 2-3cm of soil. You can plant in pots, window boxes and even your flower border. Garlic doesn’t like to be overcrowded, so keep it to the front. You can also plant the hardier broad bean varieties ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ and ‘The Sutton’ (the latter is better for small or windy spaces). Watch out for mice and squirrels, who will love such fat, rich beans – put down netting if necessary. If a severe frost is coming, be ready with fleece.
Put your leaves to work
It’s a little late now to repair a lawn worn down from the summer heatwave, but it makes sense to remove fallen leaves, or they will smother the grass, excluding light and causing it to rot. If you put the leaves into bin bags with holes punched in them and store them out of the way, before you know it you’ll have good-quality leaf mould – perfect for seed-sowing or mulching.
Be canny and book in your mower for a service now. If you wait till spring, you’ll find there’s a long queue. If nothing else, remove any petrol before winter or the mower will struggle to start up in spring – stale petrol clogs the carburettor
Clockwise from opposite: the viola Johnny Jump Up; a fieldfare feeds on garden treats; teasel seed heads; watch out for ladybirds if you do have to tidy up