I HEAR a well used phrase a lot at this time of year “Putting the garden to bed” – it would seem that the ‘enthusiastic garden presenters’ are all badgering us to tidy up, chop back and generally primp and preen.
In days gone by the average garden was filled with shrubs and evergreens and relied on seasonal bedding for colour and this would have been good and necessary advice.
However, the rise of the more naturalistic planting style with its swathes of plants, both perennial and annual, calls for a slightly different approach, not least because many of our herbaceous perennials are still flowering at this time of year.
My borders are still alight with Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’, Miscanthus sinensis and a whole load of Asters and I am certainly not going to cut those back until they are well over (and, given a mild autumn, this may well be Christmas time).
In addition, the Roses have responded to the brief warm spell at the beginning of the month and are now in full flower again, so pruning is also postponed.
Tidying up would only serve to denude the garden and deprive me of an extended season of interest and colour, and not least because, dotted throughout the main flower borders are plants which are being grown specifically for their seed heads.
We all know about Lunaria (Honesty) and Physallis (Chinese lanterns) which have long been favourites, and Dipsacus (Teasel) so beloved of Goldfinch, but plants are increasingly being grown for their interesting seed heads, as well as providing a food source for birds and small mammals and shelter for beneficial garden insects.
In addition to their ornamental value, the plants are being given the chance to develop and set seed, thus giving us the opportunity to collect seed or seedlings (as wildlife always seems to leave something).
The structure of seed heads varies according to the method with which the plant distributes its seed.
Those relying on birds to distribute the seed are often hairy or bristly to encourage attachment, sometimes with fleshy coatings to encourage consumption while grasses and daisies rely on the wind so have feathery plumes or rounded heads which help them to become airborne.
It is the elegance of these diverse structures which enhance a winter garden for me, not least when they are backlit by low winter sun or frosted with ice crystals on a cold morning.
One of my favourites for seed heads is Phlomis russeliana, a stout, clump-forming perennial with tall spires of yellow rosettes which fade to a crisp, warm brown and stand well in to the new year.
The glaucus leaves are large and hairy and not without interest in themselves.
It does like to have its feet in well drained soil so if you are unable to provide this, try its close relative Phlomis fruiticosa, stouter and more shrubby and less prone to soggy root syndrome.
Eryngiums (Sea holly) are also a bit finicky about soil but the hardier varieties such as E. bourgatii and E.x tripartitum both have starry seed heads, self-seed well and are worth persevering with.
The seemingly out of fashion Echinops (Globe thistle) is also very long lasting, both on the plant and when cut and brought indoors.
Larger plants such as Cynara cardunculus (Cardoon) and the sort-of biennial (can take up to three or four years to get round to flowering) Angelica archangelica provide structure at the back of the border while shorter plants such as Sedum provide interest at the front.
Do not discount annuals such as Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) and Nigella (love-in-a-mist) although you may have to be a bit ruthless when it comes to removing seedlings in the following season.
In fact, leave things and see what they look like – if they are a bit tatty and sorry for themselves, cut them down, if not, leave and enjoy.
If we end up with another hard winter, you may be glad of a bit of interest amongst all that snow.
With the prospect of such a winter in mind, many of you have questions regarding over-wintering tender plants. If in doubt, bring it in.
As long as good light levels are maintained and the plants are not allowed to get too hot – an unheated porch or conservatory is ideal – the plant will stand a better chance than if left to fend for itself.
If leaving it outside is unavoidable, chose a sheltered site against an east-facing wall or fence (usually the driest place).
Wrap the plant up in horticultural fleece and, especially if planted in a clay pot, wrap this up in bubble-wrap, which will help prevent the compost from freezing.
Check all plants regularly for any diseased foliage, which may indicate that the plant is too warm, there is not enough air circulation or it is too wet, and treat promptly.
If space is limited, there are a number of little plant-houses on the market which may provide some protection.
They are easy to erect, quite sturdy and often of a size which fits well in to a small space.
Beware, however, of the cheaper items as these often have plastic covers no stronger than cling-film which tear easily, thus defeating the object.
It is, in my opinion, worth spending that little bit more to get one with a sturdy cover.
Do, however, keep an eye on ventilation, opening them up on milder days to improve the otherwise poor air circulation.
Plant of the month
Mespilus Germania (Medlar)
A hardy tree grown chiefly for its unusual fruit.
Plants are usually grafted on to Quince rootstock and Quince-C is the one to choose for the most compact of trees. It is self-fertile so only one tree is necessary for good fruit production.
It requires well-drained soil and grows best in full sun or partial shade in a sheltered site. It has dark green leaves which turn to a lovely yellow then orange-brown in autumn, and white flowers in late spring and early summer, followed by dark brown fruit.
Leave the fruit for the birds, who love it, or it may be made in to a tasty jelly, provided that the fruit is ripe (or ‘Bletted’, which is the polite term used for Medlars and really means ‘Rotten’).
This is best done by leaving the fruit to ripen in storage and once it has turned dark brown in colour and soft in texture it is ready to use. Pruning is only necessary on mature trees to restrict size and it is relatively trouble and disease free.
If nothing else, it is worth growing for the novelty value and the knowledge that it has been cultivated in this country for many hundreds of years.