To tidy up or not?

Phormium - slightly flattened by  snow

Phormium - slightly flattened by snow

Having spent quite a few hours in the garden this weekend tidying up after nearly a month of bad weather I found myself smiling at Victoria’s post about her winter garden.  In particular it was her confession of being a neatnik that amused me.  Not only is it a peculiar expression but it connected with my musings whilst collecting leaves and cutting back collapsed perennials.

There has been much over the last year, if not longer, in the gardening media including blogs about a change of attitude towards the autumn tidy up of the garden.  Those with a focus on wildlife and an organic approach to gardening have been advocating that gardeners should be less fastidious in their gardens.  Not only should we leave seed heads for the birds but it is better to leave leaf litter on the borders so that wildlife can hide and keep warm under it.  The recently departed editor of the RHS The Garden, Ian Hodgson, in his welcome to the December 2010 edition, admits to a less tidy approach to his winter garden given a “realisation that all the detritus has a purpose in providing homes for wildlife, particularly overwintering insects.”

So as I was heaping piles of leaves into my trug there was a niggel at the back of my mind that maybe I shouldn’t be expending so much effort on the big tidy up.  However, as I pondered and plucked fallen sodden leaves from amongst the perennials I came across slug after slug.  Not the big ones but the little  black ones which in my opinion do the most harm.  My cutting back was not as comprehensive as in past years, this year I have left lots of seedheads for the birds.  This change has come about from watching birds attack the Agastache seedheads during the snow last year. But I cannot bring myself to leave the borders covered in leaves.  As far as I am concerned leaving leaf litter in my borders is just providing a haven for those annoying slugs to hide and wait for the young  new shoots to appear – my perennials  and bulbs won’t stand a chance.

Not only this but I suspect there is a degree of neatnik in me.  I find it more uplifting to look at the garden and see neat borders with  the hint of fresh green shoots appearing than to look out  at a sodden decaying brown mess. I find winter hard to get through so anything that lifts my soul is important to me.

Buds of Christmas Rose appearing from under the leaf litter

Buds of Christmas Rose appearing from under the leaf litter

My conclusion was that, like so many things in life, if you choose to pay attention to the things you read or see in the media then you shouldn’t feel obliged to follow it religiously. Instead it is a case of finding an approach  that works for you, following your instincts.  My  approach to the tidy up is to lessen my fastidiousness.  The leaves have been collected from the border where the perennials and bulb are but not from under the trees, shrubs and hedges.  They have been racked from the lawn but not collected from the wood chip paths (after all that is quite  a hard thing to do!).  The  collected leaves have been piled up under the hedges and at the back of the garden.

After all I don’t mind providing somewhere for wildlife to hide out during the winter but if they are going to munch on my young plants they can at least make the effort to get to the young plants instead of lying in waiting!!

16 Comments on “To tidy up or not?

  1. Thanks for the link, and glad you enjoyed my post. I totally agree with you about seeing fresh new growth coming through – it really lifts the spirits. And I have to confess that the neatness thing only extends to whatever I can see from the living room!

  2. I think its a question of us all doing what we want to. By which I mean, I agree that we shouldn’t follow maintenance trends, or even design trends for that matter, that are not right for us. I tend to do a kind of half way house which I have blogged about before. I tidy up what looks awful and will get worse. There is no point in having a mess of debris blowing around sitting on and rotting things you want to grow! But that is just my approach. A chacun son gout!

  3. I am a neatnik for four hours a year – 2 hrs in March and 2hrs in October. I find these two bursts of tidyness satisfy some deep seated need and then I can be a sloppy gardener for the rest of the year. Works a treat.

  4. Hi Helen,

    I don’t tidy up but that’s probably the laziness in me… But also because the seedheads actually provide me with something to photograph over the winter…

    However I think it also helps that I have no mature trees in my garden which drop millions of leaves, so the few I do get from next door are left, however I imagine that if I had a Sycamore or similar dropping its load then I would likely rake it all up, bag it and leave to decompose.

  5. Very thought provoking Helen, in the past I reckon I have been over tidy. Take comfort in the advice given by some experts who tell us that rotting debris can cause plant disease. Like yourself I think I have now reached a stage of compromise.

  6. I love easygardeners comment ….

    I think some areas of my garden are quite tidy because the winter structure of my garden is about seeing how the path and beds interlink to form a pattern and I am a big fan of empty pots – then some areas are left “untidy” for the mini beasts

  7. This year I have tidied up more than I usually do.I put this down to just using it has an excuse to get out there,and assess what I want to do next year. I too when cleaning up, found slug eggs etc very satisfying to get rid of them now,but I do not touch the leaves unless collecting for leaf mould. I have found they do work wonders in maintaining the soil structure (my excuse).

  8. As always, I think it is wrong to take anything to far. Too much tidying up and the garden can look a little sterile, too little and it looks a mess. as everyone has said – compromise. A second point is that a lot depends on climate. I for instance can leave my Miscanthus standing until the moment it needs cutting down ready for the spring growth to push up (I have even left it a bit late some years because of enjoying the seed heads so much). In a wet soggy climate I’m sure it’s better to tidy up than leave things to cause rotting in perfectly healthy plants. So I’d say it completely depends on the plant, the place and personal taste – much like everything else really. Christina

  9. Helen, we have snow covering our garden~that’s a rare experience in TN~I must admit that the seedheaded plants look splendid as do the grasses. But, most of the winter it can look a bit messy! Late winter or early spring I will be out there for more then easy gardener’s two hours cleaning it all up! gail

  10. I’d say I’m a combination of both. I used to completely clean everything up because I like things neat and tidy too. But as I saw birds eating the seedheads of certain flowers I’ve started leaving them up. I would love to get out and do some cleanup but after the snow we had it’s now been raining record amounts so I’m putting it off until after the holidays. One reason I do like it at least a little neat is for finding new growth like your Christmas rose.

  11. I really enjoyed this. My winter tidying tends to be spot applicated — the asparagus patch does not need dead twigs competing with new spring growth and the pests overwintering in annual vegetable detritus get delivered to the road for yard waste pickup. But I leave the dessicated stems of hollow plants like lantana and brugmansia so the pruned stubs don’t fill with water and freeze near their crowns.

  12. By the end of the year I am a lazy gardener. I leave seed heads alone and do some tidying up, but nothing too strenuous. The leaves at the front of the house get raked up but there are always the hangers on that wait to fall on their own schedule, so there are still leaves in the beds and grass by winter. The leaves at the back are left where they fall and it never seems to do any harm. I rake up the lawn in the spring but anything in the beds stays where it is.

  13. I too, consider myself to be a ‘neatnik’, which is why I’m finding it so hard leaving my garden alone this winter. But I made a promise to myself that I would leave everything be so the insects and frogs could get through winter undisturbed. I’m lucky though – I don’t have a problem with slugs (I actually worry that there aren’t enough of them for my frogs).

    I wrote a feature about garden tidying in October, and learned a lot about just how much garden tidying affects wildlife. Sparrows and swifts are suffering massive declines, due – in part, it seems – to the absense of insects (which hibernate in our gardens), and the garden tiger moth has declined by 89% – it hibernates under fallen leaves.

    That said, my garden look an absolute bomb site and I’m itching to get my hands on it. I’ve left everything intact: crinkly brown sweet peas still cling to their supports, aubergine mush sits in pots and my zinnia and cosmos stalks poke out from the beds like some sort of mangled birds’ legs. Luckily I only see it on weekends, and while it’s getting me down, it will be great in spring when I can sort it all out in one go.

    PS – is it me or is your blog ‘snowing’?

  14. Oooh, how exciting to find the Christmas rose buds. I hardly ever tidy up in fall. Never really have. I’d much rather do that job in spring and find all the bulbs poking up under the leaf litter! More exciting that way. Happy holidays Helen!

  15. I guess this is the one instance where I can say I don’t follow convention – (not that I’ve much in my garden at the moment) but I have to let the wind tidy for me, to risky to dead head things and cut them back here – I’ll wait until after the winter, proably in early April before I touch anything out there – when I can see what the wind has got upto I can then decide how to go about it. Everything is left to its on devices til spring – it stands more of a chance of surviving that way.

    Is it very sad that I dream of the *idea* of leaf litter actually being there undisturbed?!

    That being said – sounds like you’ve a lovely balance and that was a very cheeky slug – when I find them I do feed them to my hens – although even they don’t really like the black ones!

    Have a great break!

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