If your garden is looking messy at this time of year, don’t worry. The garden at Lewis Cottage is also a bit of a mess and Richard Orton confesses he likes it that way. In his latest update Richard describes his own regime for tidying and pruning in winter and urges us to make up our own rules.
I don’t think there are any hard or fast rules as to whether it’s better to clear dead herbaceous foliage now or in the spring, I think it’s more to do with us gardeners knowing how our own patch works. For sure, clearing away dying vegetation and slimy leaves now will prevent the crowns of your prized hostas, for instance, from rotting away. But cutting down the stems of Phlomis russelliana and the like, will not only deprive garden birds of the rich treasure contained in its seed heads but will also deprive you of the sight of its beautiful naked stems on a frosty morning.
A selective pruning regime
So, what to do? Well in the spirit of compromise I choose to work to a selective pruning and clearing regime. I tend to clear and prune around the cottage whilst leaving the plants around the pond and in the woodland for the wildlife to enjoy. I work on the theory that wildlife is more likely to be present in areas that are least disturbed by us, the cats and our two Tibetan terriers. In the areas that I do clear, I remove any rotting foliage but rigid stems are cut down by just half to give flying bugs such as ladybirds a launch pad in the spring as they emerge from their winter slumber.
Pruning overgrown shrubs
Next on my to do list is a bit of regenerative pruning on overgrown shrubs that have been in the garden for years and are now past their best. The two shrubs on the list this year are Hebe salicifolia and Viburnum sargentii. Both of these have outgrown their space and their shape, the Viburnum in particular putting on several feet of growth each year from a base frame of about 5ft. It is now well over 12ft and, whilst spectacular, will just get taller and thinner unless we do something about it. With a mature shrub like this you are able to still see where the last major prune was made and that will act as a guide this time around. It still has berries on, so I’ll leave it until they have all been eaten and then set to.
Hebe salicifolia is a very useful delicate looking shrub, but one that is as tough as old boots and when correctly tended will last for years. It will repay you after the odd major prune with thick luscious, fern-like growth and bottle brush type flowers in either white or pale mauve. Left unchecked it can grow to 6ft or more and become straggly, but again, take a look at these old shrubs, check if there are any signs of new growth towards the base of the plant and prune it hard. I’ve found that it regenerates really quickly and any short- term unsightliness is soon repaid by new growth in spring.
Work on the rose garden
The rose garden (or old parterre/veg garden) is one of the borders that does get cleared each winter situated as it is near to the cottage. I half prune the roses to prevent wind rock and then hard prune in late February/early March. We’ve lost a couple of R. Munstead Wood due to the overhanging branches of the nearby mulberry tree so these have been replaced and, of course, I couldn’t just order two. I’ve also ordered another five R. Winchester Cathedral to complete the planting in the central white border which will complement the box topiary already there.
The hedging that forms the structure of the rose garden is formed of Lonicera nitida, all grown from cuttings taken from the roof - yes the roof! - of the house in 1992. It suffers from frost damage and snow ‘burn’ during the winter but is such a prolific grower that by spring any bare patches have been covered up. Time was I’d trim this hedge with hand shears, which I found therapeutic, but having discovered a new range of battery powered tools, I’m afraid I’ve switched my allegiance. Mind you it does mean I can trim it more often which keeps it looking very neat all year.
Dramatic change on the pond
Down on the pond there has been quite a dramatic change partially caused by the re-emergence of fissures in the banks around it, and partially through the mysterious disappearance of our 13 ducks overnight in late spring. We never did find out what became of them, there was certainly no evidence of anything untoward. Maybe the fall in water levels caused them to look elsewhere. What I do know, however, is that since then the plant and insect life has dramatically increased and the water has not only cleared but is at its highest level ever. For now, we’re going to leave the pond as it is and hope for the return of wild ducks in the spring along with the heron and the moorhens that used to be about and maybe, just maybe, we’ll catch a glimpse of a kingfisher for a third time in thirty years!
Flowering out of season
Finally, I can’t help noticing the persistence of some plants to continue to flower well out of season. A quick walk between showers last weekend revealed wonderful blooms on an overlooked Hydrangea Schneeball and a whole patch of Persicaria amplexicaulis Taurus. A large pot of tender Pineapple sage (which I had totally forgotten about) is in full bloom so I’ve brought it into the conservatory so it could flower without danger of being frosted. Such a plethora of colour on an appallingly miserable wet November day gladdened the heart I can tell you and even in the rain it was a delight just to be outside.
Top Tips for December
Take advantage of a quiet time in the gardening year to get some of those maintenance jobs done.
- Winter prune wisteria back to 2 or 3 buds to allow for next year’s bud development
- Prune and tie in climbing roses
- Check the supports of all climbing plants
- Check on any trees in your garden and crown lift them to allow more light in wherever possible.
More information on the garden at Lewis Cottage can be found here.