Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Evolving Gardeners

Anyone who has ever caught a tube train in London will know that even if there is barely a square inch of floor showing in a carriage, some twinkle-toed commuter will pop their feet onto it and we will all squeeze a little closer to accommodate those parts of their body which are broader than their little toe, because there is no such thing as a full tube train. In much the same way, there is no such thing as a full garden border. The plant lover will always find room to squeeze in one more must-have plant which has leapt unbidden into the shopping trolley. I have the same problem with books. Thankfully, the introduction of e-readers has alleviated the shelf space issues caused by my fiction habit, but when it comes to gardening books, I am old-school.


The trouble with gardening books, lovely though they are, is that gardening advice changes over time. Crocks in pots are now a thing of the past; tree planting holes have changed shape; and what was once a weed might now have developed into a deeply desired wildflower. One of the most significant changes in my lifetime is the way in which we put a garden to bed for winter. Once upon a time, I might have left leaves and stems only on borderline hardy plants as a means of protection during the colder months; now I leave the stems on all of the perennials. The closest I get to an autumn tidy is harvesting the leaves off lawns and paths for my favourite crop from the garden (at least, until I work out how to grow chocolate bars) - leafmould. 

Teasel
For me, cutting back plant stems at this time of year is an opportunity lost. I care about the wildlife in my garden. Offering protection in the form of these stems is not a hardship for me, but it could mean the world to seed-eating birds or to minibeasts and (sadly for the little critters) those creatures further up the food chain who feed upon them. Before I took the decision to garden with wildlife in mind, I had started to leave a few seedheads in place, simply for the pleasure of their company over winter and to see them donning their frosty hats on a cold January morn. 

Echinops
My favourite task in the garden is cutting back spent flower stems in spring. I don’t compost them immediately; I leave them stacked neatly for a few days to give any wildlife the opportunity to move on. In spring, plants may be already coming back into growth; certainly there is barely any time to wait until fresh foliage emerges and bulbs begin to bloom. I find cutting back in autumn depressing as the tidied-up plants will not be back in growth until next year. Cutting back in spring is exhilarating because we can see something new emerging; we have something to look forward to!

Cutting back in Spring
If you are thinking about cutting back your perennials now, why not try resisting the urge? Hang up the secateurs and do something filled with hope for a new season, like planting bulbs or sowing seeds. I understand that tidy gardeners might struggle with the idea of not cutting back, but placed in the right spot, perhaps with repetition further along the border, seedheads are structurally interesting and can make pleasing design sense. You never know, if you take a chance and leave the stems, a new seedhead design opportunity might present itself. When you cut back the plants in spring, you can seize the moment to divide, replant and create your new scheme. Then you will be able to enjoy the fruits of your labours through summer, autumn and winter, while at the same time offering shelter to minibeasts; and it won't have cost you a penny.


I am linking this post with Wildlife Wednesday at http://mygardenersays.com  Why not pour yourself a drink and saunter over there to see some fabulous photos of the diverse wildlife to be found in gardens around our beautiful planet?

53 comments:

  1. I agree, but as a tidy gardener (in mind if not always in action!) I cut back selectively. I buy and plant with seedheads in mind 'cos they do add so much to the winter border as well as providing a habitat for wildlife. Things like grasses, phlomis and echinops. But the stuff that just goes soggy and will always look gross, that comes out.

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    1. Phlomis and Echinops do add so much to the winter border. They make beautiful seedheads and I wouldn't want to be without them. Cutting back grasses in spring is particularly enjoyable. I love seeing them with their spring haircuts!

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  2. Fashion in gardening as in all things tend to go round in circles, in ten years time someone will tells us we should put crocks in pots for drainage. I still put them in mine so I may! be fashionable in the future. I have the same problem with gardening books.

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    1. You're right about fashion! I have just spent this year falling in love with a plant which was last fashionable during my childhood. Next year I will be on a mission to get everyone growing it again!

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  3. I am not a particularly tidy gardener, so I am happy to know that my habits make life easier for the wee creatures that over-winter on the island.
    Your book case looks a lot like mine! Ereaders are grand, but the thought of snuggling up under a quilt, with a mug of chocolate and an Ereader just doesn't give me a cosy feeling!

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    1. The thing I like most about my ereader is that I don't upset my husband when I turn a page. Books which are page-turners can be very distracting for sleeping husbands!

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  4. You're very wise to keep those seed heads. Sometimes it's hard, when the plants look a bit peeky, but the birds and other critters certainly benefit. Thank you for reminding gardeners to keep cut plants around for a while--great advice. I love the photo of the Echinops--beautiful! And thanks for participating in Wildlife Wednesday--a real treat!

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    1. Thank you! And thank you for arranging this meme - it is always interesting to see the wildlife in gardens around the world, although I do find myself suffering from wildlife envy at times!

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  5. I can't for the life of me see the fascination in Ereaders - to me there is pleasure from turning the page the old fashioned way but do understand how useful they are for more than just the reason of space.
    I would love to be the gardener that just lets my garden take care of itself over winter but I find that much of the winter debris provides a cosy home for slugs and snails.

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    1. That's a shame. I haven't had any problems with debris and slugs and snails in the borders. I guess it's because they are part of a food chain and get eaten. The only damage I've seen is one Hosta got eaten this year and some veggies were affected a couple of years ago. On both occasions a slug pub got the situation back under control.

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  6. I love that you garden with the wildlife in mind. I'm sure they appreciate it. xo Laura

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    1. We are seeing an increase in wildlife here, so it's working!

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  7. What great advice offered! It is a delicate line to walk, keeping the garden tidy over winter in areas where there is no forgiving snow to cover sere landscape. But there is no argument that the tiniest of creatures benefit for our leavings, no matter the climate or part of the world. Birds will take late seeds, insects will burrow in and winter over, and at least some parts of spent plant material will enrich the soil as cycles of cold and warmth and dry and wet work their magic. Great to have you throw in for Wildlife Wednesday - looking forward to reading more!

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    1. Thank you. Gardening for wildlife at any time of year brings its rewards. The winter wildlife garden can be particularly beautiful. Whether spent flower stems are bathed in low sunlight, crowned with frost, or are creating height in our borders, they can be used to great effect to extend our enjoyment of perennial planting, all while offering shelter and food to wildlife.

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  8. Hurrah! Another lazy gardener! Actually, I'm being a bit tidy this winter, mainly due to having been a tad laissez faire in the borders for the past year – or three – it's all gone bonkers and I need to get it back to the bare bones. It's a thinly veiled veneer of organisation, hiding a fiendish plan to make room to stuff more plants in there! Do you have an e-reader? I can't bring myself to get one, I love the physical books so much, though your absolutely right, I probably haven't looked in the vast majority of my gardening books for months, if not years!

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    1. I do have an ereader - I got one when I was about to take a flight and realised that the cost of the weight of books I wanted to take with me made buying an ereader a financially sound idea. The good news for me is that now no one can see how many books I'm devouring. It also means that buying a real book is even more of an event (usually explained away with the sentence "I won it in a raffle"). Fortunately, I win a lot of raffles. Ahem.

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  9. Lovely post Sarah, I garden as you do- both for wildlife and for me, like you I feel depressed if its cut back in an autumn neat and tidy control freak manner. Its a great opportunity to really look at shape and structure without the distraction of colour too. Plus when we do get those deep frosts, its such an uplifting sight.

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    1. Absolutely. I agree with your comment about colour. It can distract us from form, so it is an excellent time of year to leave everything in place and take time to consider perennial planting design.

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  10. Good advice, and easy for this untidy gardener to follow.

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  11. I'm afraid we almost live in a bookcase, I collect antique gardening books and Dutch literature. I cannot go on in this way, so the fiction books have to make place for more gardening books I suppose. Despite I have no e-reader until now, I think I have to buy one in the future.
    By the way I'm not a tidy gardener, but I had to cut some plants back because otherwise I could not plant my new bought tulip bulbs. I leave it all till early spring.

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    1. Your bookcase sounds like a truly desirable place to live - especially when the garden is being buffeted by a storm. I am now drooling at the thought of your collection of antique gardening books.

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  12. I love my Kindle but I agree with you that there are some books you just don't want to see in that format - garden books, for sure, and most nonfiction, I think. And though I've never ridden the tube, I fully understand the impulse to cram just one more plant into that (never full) border!

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    1. I agree with you about nonfiction, although for any "how to" titles, the ability to click on links in ebooks and bring up websites is really useful. I love cookery books too. My family think I should just Google recipes, but I much prefer to sit and read a cookery book.

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  13. Good post! I agree - spring cleanup is the better option. I do remove the larger stakes from the garden, though, but leave the plant material. I have the same issue with books (gardening and not), but I'm too much of a curmudgeon to use ebooks.

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    1. Stick to your curmudgeonly ways - lovely little bookshops depend on anti-ebook curmudgeons!

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  14. Wonderful post! As a gardener, I agree with you completely. This year, however, I had to completely clean up the garden since we're selling our home. I mumbled apologies over and over again to the critters outside as I cleaned up!

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    1. Mumbling apologies to critters is up there with saying sorry to bulbs. I regularly have to apologise to bulbs for accidentally hoiking them from the soil.

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  15. I usually coat back perennials when I see the spring bulbs are nudging through the ground. They are telling me they need a bit of space. As well as leaving the dead growth on top as a habitat and shelter for wildlife I think it gives the roots some frost protection too.

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    1. You're right, it does give extra protection. Removing the dead leaves and stems to reveal bulbs peeping through the soil is one of the highlights of the gardening year as far as I am concerned.

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  16. A good recommendation, I've been doing this for a while with beneficial results. In the most prominent part of the garden, visible from the street, I have mixed in plenty of plants which look good in dormancy. For the rest, I just enjoy knowing the plants are providing cover for the little creatures.

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    1. I'm so pleased that you garden in this way. Selecting plants which look good in dormancy extends the period of interest in our borders while offering shelter to wildlife.

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  17. Interesting how gardening trends change! I do try to clean up a bit in my front garden after the birds have eaten most of the seeds, just so I can get my bulbs in more easily, and also because I live in a neighborhood where even my more cottage-style garden is probably seen as wild and even unseemly. (But we are noticing that the neighbors are all getting solar panels after we got them, so there is hope!) I pile everything on the side, though, where birds can still get at the seed heads if there are seeds to be gotten. I wish I could mulch my garden with my leaves like usual, but this year they are advising us not too, with all the ticks that hide in the leaves. Into the woods they go!

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    1. It seems as if you are doing a great job of converting your neighbours already - let's hope they follow suit with leaving the seedheads in place! It's a shame about the leaves, but if you are in a Lyme disease area, you have to take care.

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  18. I don't cut back anything, either, except for the plants that tried to stab me when I transplanted them. I love the spring clean up, too. Seeing the new growth is exhilarating!

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    1. The spring clean up is a task really worth looking forward to. It's always a pleasure!

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  19. I tend to be a bit lazy, so procrastinating till later fits right into my habits. Also, by then some of those stems will have rotted into the earth, therefore adding nutrients to the soil. By the way I also am old-schol about garden books. I don't care how old, they still are wonderful to view and to read, even if to see how things in the gardening world have changed.

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    1. The same goes for cookery books too. They are filled with food we wouldn't dream of eating these days.

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  20. I agree with you on both points. I love my Kindle but only for fiction, I like the real thing for reference books, not sure why really. As well as gardening with wildlife in mind, I'm a bit of a lazy gardener so if it can wait till spring, it usually does. I'm sure the wildlife loves me for it though.

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    1. Exactly. Laziness, on this occasion, is a virtue.

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  21. Hi Sarah, there is always - always - room for just one more plant in a border, if not then it's time to get the lawn edger out! Hopefully with the garden we have now, it going to be many years before I have to start show-horning plants into gaps because we've ru out of space.

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    1. I bet you have got your soil into such good heart that you will be shoe-horning plants in sooner than you think!

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  22. What an interesting post. I never knew that fashions in garden care had changed (although I ought to have guessed it). I will now NOT cut back stems etc. in the winter. and take your advice. I don't think I have much natural talent as a gardener to be honest but at least I can avoid killing mini beasts.

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  23. Lol yes.....there will ALWAYS be room for more plants....I do wish I could get used to a kindle, everyone seems to be using them but I still have to have a book on my knee. I love your pics!!!xxx

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    1. Thanks! I have been surprised at how much I like my kindle (although I do miss the smell of new books).

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  25. I just counted my gardening books and find I have 372 which seems quite a lot, but I love reading the old ones. We don' t do 'bastard trenching' anymore, thank goodness, but I love reading about it.
    Isn' t it great that one can indulge one' s idleness and feel smug about it too, knowing one is helping our poor, beleaguered wildlife? Win- win situation.

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    1. You have a gardening library! I tried bastard trenching in 1995. I may recover soon.

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  26. More and more, I am getting into the habit of not cutting back in Autumn. Some beds where we have a lot of Spring bulbs I struggle with this, seems when I cut back these in Spring there is a tendency to step on the emerging bulb shoots. Pots not requiring crocks, I really must find out more about this.

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    1. Which? did a trial and found that crocks made no difference.
      Now the thinking is that crocks could be damaging in a wet summer as they may stop water draining from the pot.

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  27. We are like-minded gardeners, Sarah. I agree with you about leaving the seeds for the wildlife, but probably cut back more than you do in the fall. This is partly because our growing season is so very short and I have an overwhelming task in May to get the garden ready, so I like to have a bit of a jump start. But watching the goldfinches eating the purple cone flower seeds is such a wonderful winter joy. I love your 'tube' analogy. So glad I have a Kindle so no one knows I read 2-3 novels a week, but my book shelves are crammed with garden books which I cannot enjoy on an ereader. P. x

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    1. Your comment about the goldfinches is so true. It takes no effort on our part, yet we may get to enjoy sights such as the goldfinches visiting the seedheads in your garden.
      It has come to something when we have to hide our novel-reading habits! The thing is, it's so easy to buy a new book on a Kindle. And then there are all those free samples of novels....

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