My mother in law used to talk about putting the garden to bed for the winter. Not that she was a gardener but it was often the perception of her generation. Following the autumn tidy-up, you would add your well-rotted manure and leave well alone until spring.
Does the garden go to bed? No it ticks over even though most of the colour has long gone. We don’t see the remarkable process that goes on backstage when leaves fall and perennial plants die back, but biological wonders are happening out there ready for the surge of growth in spring.
There’s also the joy of shapes, textures and forms in stems and seedheads, the bleached fountains of grasses in the winter sun, and the perfect rim of snow on spreading branches.
This time of year we can really appreciate plants that die gracefully rather than sinking down into a bed of slime. And if we can resist the merciless tidy-ups our parents or grandparents may have done, we can also help wildlife through the sparse winter months into the warmth of spring.
Attitudes have become more relaxed around gardening generally and that especially applies to winter tidy-ups as gardens become more crucial for wildlife against a backdrop of intensive farming. Even so, there’s always a compromise between leaving dead plant material for wildlife and clearing enough to prevent fungal infections.
Many people grow Agapanthus for late and stunning blue flowers but if you resist deadheading this plant you’ll be rewarded with dramatic seedheads, then star shapes. Bergenia or Elephant’s ears, another popular choice, has wide, waxy leaves that take on deep burnished hues of red and bronze. And if you have ferns, leaving their fronds a bit longer will reward you with a delicate filigree of foliage when dusted with hoar frost.
Creatures will be hibernating in the garden as I write this, hiding under plants, bits of dead branches and grass clippings left in a pile and that’s a nice feeling. Insects will be finding sanctuary in the stems and seedheads of eryngiums and teasel which in turn support birdlife such as the three finches which were feasting on my phlomis this morning.
Ivy is essential for insects and pollinators before they hibernate so I leave plenty in the hedges and it’s worth remembering that ivy won’t strangle a healthy tree!
For those of us lucky enough to have a garden, it can provide a welcome distraction from the gloom of living with a pandemic as well as a source of wonder, not just for mammals, birds and insects but for the fascination of the plants themselves.
Leaves drop when they are no longer needed and the leaf scar is covered by a corky layer to seal it against fungal infection and water loss. It is a highly complex process that ensures the plant’s survival. The plant stops growing above ground to conserve energy for the following spring and to allow the roots to continue to develop and thrive, boosted by the muck that worms take down.
So in a way my mother-in-law was right. Plants have a biological clock just like we do. We go dormant when it’s time to sleep and plants go dormant when it’s time to prepare their soft tissues for freezing temperatures. Wise woman.