Preparing your garden for the winter

All of a sudden the temperatures drop and we turn our heads to winter. Autumn is the time gardeners think to ‘put the garden to bed’ for the winter and tidy up the beds and borders before putting away the garden tools and curling up somewhere warm with a few garden books and seed catalogues.

Here are some of my tips on how to care for wildlife, protect your vegetable garden, and care for your soil and beds including ways to improve the soil micro-environment through the winter.

Encouraging wildlife to your garden in winter

If we want to encourage wildlife maybe we should think less about tidying the garden and more about providing an environment where wildlife is safe and welcome. 

Our native wildlife needs your help and the good news is it doesn’t take a lot of effort or money to make a few changes that can help your garden become wildlife friendly and still look great.

Winter can be a difficult time for our native wildlife when they need good sources of food and safe areas to nest and your garden should be just as busy with wildlife in the winter as it is the rest of the year. 

When it comes to cutting back perennials and shrubs try not to be too tidy and thorough. Leave as much as possible until the end of the winter. This not only gives seeds and hibernating areas for birds and insects but can look wonderful on a frosty morning. Some late flowering plants definitely benefit from not being pruned back too early as their top growth or flower heads can protect the main plant from cold weather.

Leaf litter can be piled up to allow for frogs and small mammals to hibernate in or use to line nests. If left to rot over the next year, leaf mould makes a great conditioner for the soil.

Avoid disturbing hibernating insects in garden sheds and buildings. A lot of butterflies and ladybirds overwinter in these places. 

Leaving piles of wood, twigs and even pots or stones can help to give protection to small mammals, amphibians and insects.

If you need a hedge, consider planting mixed native shrubs and trees that have berries rather than a single plant species. Biodiversity is the key to developing a balance in your garden and a mix of evergreen and deciduous shrubs not only give interest over a longer period but plants with flowers and berries will help feed your wildlife.

Last but not least, make time to feed the birds. There are so many bird feeders available and lots of different seed mixes, but really they will be happy with basic bird food or homemade fat balls and a saucer of water. It doesn’t need to cost much and in no time you will be visited by some wonderful birds. With regular feeding they will nest and next summer they will reward you by keeping down the bugs on your roses.

Think before taking out all the ivy in your garden. I know a lot of people really don’t like it, (and in some cases fear it, and whilst I agree it needs to be controlled and perhaps I wouldn’t grow it on my house,) but it does have a lot of benefits. Ivy is a hugely valuable wildlife plant recommended by the RSPB as a food source for winter birds and if allowed to flower and produce berries it’s a wonderful source of food to a wide range of wildlife. Some of our most beautiful insects rely on it including blue butterflies, bees and hoverflies. Please find a small space for ivy in your garden. It’s happy in some of the more difficult growing areas of the garden, perhaps in a shaded spot or as ground cover behind the shed. The wildlife will still find it and thank you.

Protecting the soil

If you haven’t already, now is a good time to prepare your garden beds for the cold and dormant period to come, protecting the soil so that it is better prepared for planting in spring.

Any soil left bare through the winter is vulnerable to weed seeds blowing in, settling and becoming established, ready to grow in spring when the weather warms up. 

Soil erosion from wind, rain and snow is another problem when soil is left exposed to the elements.

There are a variety of options for protecting your garden beds. Here are some of the more popular.

Bark Mulch

There is, in fact, very little bark in the bark mulch products you find on the market. Ornamental bark is the beautiful stuff you see and may get confused with bark mulch but bags of bark mulch are basically arborists’ waste.  Wood chippings would be a better description for it.

Bark mulch is, in my opinion, the best mulch for ornamental beds because it is relatively cheap, easy to apply, lasts a long time, suppresses weeds, reduces soil erosion, stabilises soil temperature, adds organic matter, does not imbalance nutrient levels (see compost below) and last but not least, helps to maintain biodiversity. What’s not to love?

The downside is it can look a bit messy, especially as the birds love to chuck it about while searching for insects to eat. You can also introduce tree and shrub diseases and fungal problems, particularly if the mulch is piled up above the crown. Make sure trees and plants are given good ventilation space around the base and you should have very little problem. 

If applying to a vegetable patch scrape the bark back before planting to give the soil time to warm up.

Recommendation: I would definitely recommend using bark mulch.

Compost

Definition from Wikipedia: Compost is organic matter that has been broken down into simpler organic or inorganic matter in a process called composting. This process recycles various organic materials otherwise regarded as waste products and produces a soil conditioner. Compost is rich in nutrients.

There are many compost products available and you can compost your own garden waste. This article does not cover how to choose the best compost for your garden. I will cover this in a separate article.

Remember the prime reason for applying mulch is to suppress weeds and reduce soil erosion, so mulch depth is important. If you have enough home produced compost for at least 50mm (2”) or better still up to 100mm (4”) layer then this is a very good solution. However, few of us have that much and commercial products can be expensive.

Compost mulch does have all of the benefits of bark mulch plus it is higher in nutrients, which is a double edged sword. 

Whenever Jan and I start a new project we always recommend testing the soil first and we find established, well maintained gardens frequently have higher than normal levels of phosphorus, sometimes at toxic levels. According to the laboratory, this is caused by the over application of composts and manures (in particular horse manure).

So, if you think your soil needs conditioning then I recommend you get the soil tested first and then only buy products that you need. Apply a 25mm (1”) layer topping up with bark mulch.

Beware: compost brought in from outside can be contaminated with pathogens or broad-leaf herbicides, so always check your sources.

Recommendation: Compost is a good mulch but take care not to imbalance the soil nutrient levels and make sure the compost is safe to use.

Hay and Straw

Both hay and straw are good for maintaining biodiversity, provide good air circulation and are low in nutrients so will not imbalance soil nutrient levels. (Hay does have higher nutrient values than straw.) 

When dry, hay and straw can blow around in strong winds and make a mess.

Hay is dried cut grass and straw is the stalk of cereal crops with the seed heads removed during harvesting. Both make really good mulches that can help suppress weeds and reduce soil erosion. They break down faster than wood chippings so are really good for adding organic matter to the soil. 

If not removed hay seeds can germinate so grass grows in the beds. This is not normally a problem with straw.

Recommendation: Hay and straw are excellent mulches but can get messy and hay seeds are a problem. 

Cardboard and Plastic Weed Suppressant

For vegetable patches only, laying cardboard or plastic weed suppressant on the soil through the winter is fine. They will both suppress weeds and reduce soil erosion.

In some climates soil water retention may be an issue but not in the UK, not in the winter!

Advantages: 

  • Easy to apply;
  • Cheap;
  • Suppresses weeds;
  • Reduces soil erosion.

Disadvantages include: 

  • Cardboard will decompose but plastic weed suppressant does not. It can be reused but will eventually end up in landfill;
  • Does not stabilise soil temperature;
  • Does not add organic matter to the soil;
  • Does not help to maintain biodiversity.

Recommendation: Cardboard is fine for use on new ornamental flower beds and vegetable patches but there is no place for plastic weed suppressant in the garden other than under paths.

Cover Crops

Cover crops, aka green manure, have come from farming and are becoming increasingly popular in vegetable gardens. They effectively cover the ground thus suppressing weeds and reducing soil erosion.

Cover crops have all the advantages of other mulches and can bring additional benefits. They increase nitrogen levels and some varieties have deep roots that improve the soil structure below the topsoil, which helps water drainage.

If left to grow these plants will flower and set seed so don’t leave it too late before digging them up or in. Digging in should be done late winter allowing time to breakdown before planting.

There are many varieties that you can consider growing. Here are a few popular garden varieties:

Legumes: These include field beans, vetch, clover and peas. Good for adding nitrogen and are a cover crop for brassicas.

Ryegrass and mustard: Good for breaking down clay soil. Can be difficult to remove entirely when the time comes.

Buckwheat and Phalicia: Easy to grow and have the added benefit of late sowing towards the end of summer or early autumn and can be dug into the soil late winter to add nutrients and organic matter.

Recommendation: Cover crops are becoming popular for a good reason, they are a good organic way of maintaining a healthy garden. Spend time choosing the right variety for your beds and follow the suppliers’ instructions. Don’t sow too late because they may not grow.

Having provided for wildlife and protected your garden beds you have earned a little time to yourself. Now where are those garden books and seed catalogues?

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