By Jackie Hunt, Turn End’s gardener
So far winter has been very changeable – a few frosts, lots of rain, and frightening winds! There is still plenty to keep me busy in the garden including tidying up borders, spreading a mulch of compost in mild spells and starting winter pruning.
1. Tidy beds and borders
The frosts, rain and wind have taken their toll on the faded herbaceous perennials that still remain. I’m leaving the stems, spent flowers and seed heads that still look attractive, particularly silhouetted in winter’s low sunlight or rimmed in frost. Particularly attractive are several plants in No Mans (the dry garden), including Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’s’ ghostly white stems, spiky Eryngium flower heads and twisted, swollen Nigella damascena seed heads.
But in the Spring garden and Summer borders I’ve cut back dead stems and trimmed back the scruffy leaves of evergreen perennials such as Brunnera macrophylla and Phlomis russeliana to make way for the emerging bulbs that will shortly carpet the ground.
I try to leave some areas as untouched for as long as I can. Those borders strewn with dry leaf litter make a sheltered home for all kinds of insects.
This job is an amazing alternative to the gym! I must shift several tonnes of compost between autumn and spring, certainly keeping me warm and surely building up biceps!
I started mulching in autumn when the soil was still holding some warmth. As we have a very free draining soil, we find it is greatly improved by covering the surface with a 5cm layer of garden compost. The compost is gradually and naturally incorporated into the soil and helps it hold water and nutrients. If you have heavy clay soil it will also help improve drainage. A mulch will also protect the roots of plants from winter cold and suppress weeds. We make our own compost from garden waste, but you can use well rotted manure, leafmould, or buy composted garden waste from your local council. You can also get spent mushroom compost delivered to you in bulk bags (this may not be suitable if you already have a very alkaline soil or grow acid loving plants, as spent mushroom compost is quite chalky). Only mulch the soil whilst it warm, so pick a warm, sunny spell. Don’t mulch on top of frozen and frosty soil or in cold weather. Keep mulch away from the crowns of herbaceous plants and the stems of shrubs to prevent rotting. You can start mulching again as the soil starts warming up again in mid spring.
3. Ventilate greenhouses
Take advantage of sunny dry days and open greenhouse doors and windows to get a good change of air through the buidling. Keep an eye on plants and pick off and dispose of rotted leaves. Inspect stored plants such as Dahlias and Cannas to check they are not rotting or drying out.
4. Prune wisteria
Wisteria needs pruning twice a year, to keep it in its allotted space and to encourage lots of flowers. Back in July or August, I shortened the long green whippy shoots to about 5 or 6 leaves. This transfers the energy in the plant into making flowers rather than growing long shoots. In winter (January or February) I cut back those same shoots back further, to just 2 or 3 buds. This keeps the plant compact and prevents leaves from obscuring the flowers.
5. Take care of your feathered friends!
Most berries have been stripped from trees and shrubs by mid winter, so make sure you keep putting out food for birds. Keep bird baths scrubbed clean, full and unfrozen. If you are not sure what food to buy for birds, there is some great advice on the RSPB website: http://www.rspb.org.uk/advice/helpingbirds/feeding/whatfood/
6. Order bulbs for spring planting
We plant lots of bulbs in the autumn for a spring display, but this year we’ve been perusing catalogues for interesting summer and autumn flowering plants to extend interest later in the year. We’ve been tempted by new Dahlias, Schizostylis and Gladioli. I can’t wait until the parcels arrive later in the spring and I get planting!