Jobs to do in your winter garden

Autumn and early winter months bring a wonderful richness of colour to the garden. The clear sunny days and night frosts that we often get at this time of year lead to a wonderful intensity of colour in leaves and shrubs. For Sheena Marsh there’s always something to do in the garden, whatever the time of the year, so here are her top tips for maintaining your outdoor space this season…

This is a very industrious time in the garden, as it’s now that we put in the work that will give us payback next year. It’s worth thinking ahead to the spring by planting bulbs… lots of them.

Bulbs offer incredible value for money, giving instant impact. If possible, buy fewer varieties but larger numbers of each. And don’t forget to enjoy the harvest from your garden. Homegrown apples and pears can be gathered and stored for enjoying in the winter months ahead.

Rake up fallen leaves

Pile the leaves up once raked to make leaf mould. If lthey are left in a thick layer on the lawn they will kill off the grass, and fallen leaves left lying around plants can encourage slugs and snails.

If you have a large garden with lots of leaves to deal with, make a container with four stakes and chicken wire in a corner somewhere to contain the leaves. If you have limited space, rake the leaves into plastic bags; left over compost bags are ideal. Punch holes in the bags and leave in an out of the way space to rot down. In eighteen months or so you will be rewarded with good leaf mould, which makes excellent mulch, for free. 

Prune climbing roses

This is to ensure that plants grow vigorously and flower well each year. If left, climbing roses can become a tangled mess of branches with very few flowers. 

First remove dead, diseased or dying branches, then tie in any new shoots that are needed to fill supports (all climbing roses need a support to grow on). Prune any flowered side shoots back by two thirds of their length If the plant is heavily congested, and cut out any really old branches from the base to promote new growth next year.

Plant bulbs

Plant in abundance but wait until November to put in tulips as the temperature becomes cool enough to discourage fungal diseases. Check for blue mould on your bulbs and do not plant them if you discover it. The end that tapers is the top of the bulb and the flatter end is where the roots emerge - it should be planted this way up.

If you are ever in doubt about which way up to plant a bulb then plant it sideways and it will find its own way up in the spring. With bulbs, the rule of thumb is to plant with twice as much cover as the height of the bulb so for example, if your bulb is 3cm, then you want 6cm of earth above it. Allow two bulb widths between bulbs. Go on, plant your bulbs this weekend, and come next spring you will be glad you did!

Cut back herbaceous perennials

These are the plants that die back in the winter and re-appear in the spring, and that have finished flowering.

This makes the garden look tidier and discourages diseases attacking old growth. If on some plants the flowers have finished, but the foliage is still green and attractive, leave it until it is really blackened by frosts. Cutting everything down can leave unsightly gaps in the borders and should be avoided until as late in the autumn as possible.

Any soft growth that has been cut down, such as geraniums for example can be consigned to the compost heap or ‘green bin’ if you have a collection in your area.

Lift and divide established perennial plants

These are the plants which are not trees, shrubs or bulbs - they tend to make up the flower garden. The name basically means plants that survive for many years. Dividing perennials regularly will ensure healthy, vigorous plants that will continue to perform year after year. It also offers the opportunity to multiply your plants.

If you’re not sure, older clumps are easily spotted, as all the young, vigorous growth is towards the outside of the clump and the centre is bare. Dividing can be done from now until spring, so long as soil conditions allow. My rule of thumb is if the soil is so wet it sticks to your boots, keep off it.

Late flowering perennials like Asters (Michaelmas Daisies) are best left until spring before being divided. Lift plants gently with a garden fork, working outwards from the crown’s centre to limit root damage. Shake off excess soil so that roots are clearly visible. Divide by pulling apart by hand or by separating with a garden fork or spade.

Bare root trees and shrubs

These become available in garden centres towards the middle of November and should be planted immediately, provided the ground is frost free. They offer better value for money than pot-grown plants, being easier to handle, transport and store. You can go for longer root lengths as you do not need to carry the accompanying soil. Also, you can visually inspect the root systems to see if there are any problems and make sure they have been looked after and have not dried up.

The roots should have been stored in a cool, damp place and so before you transport your tree or shrub, wrap the roots up and plant as soon as possible to prevent drying.

The other great advantage is that they need less fuss and the roots do not need to adjust to a change in soil. It’s the equivalent of carrying a sleeping child from the car and off to bed!

Lawn care

Moss in the grass is an ongoing battle for many people. It’s important to understand that moss is a symptom of a problem. If you kill moss without addressing the cause it will return. Compaction is a major cause of moss growth, and fortunately relatively simple to overcome. Moss requires very damp conditions and if you have not treated the lawn to allow drainage, when it rains the water will remain at the surface providing the ideal conditions for moss to thrive.

Compacted areas of lawn, such as paths or places that children play should be aerated. This involves driving spikes quite deeply into the lawn and can be done with a garden fork for smaller lawns or for bigger ones you can buy or hire specialist tools. Aerating will allow the water to drain and deprive the moss of the conditions it needs to thrive. It looks a bit of a mess straight after you’ve finished because the plugs stay on the surface, but for the long-term health of the grass it’s well worth the time and effort. Over the winter, try to avoid walking on the lawn whilst it is wet as this will compact the soil.

Whatever the season, theres always something to see and do in the garden - and you can warm yourself up by getting on with some essential tasks!

Sheena Marsh is the founder and a director of Oxford Garden Design. For over fifteen years she has worked closely with hundreds of individual garden owners to produce practical landscape plans that result in gorgeous gardens. For more information on gardens Sheena and her team have designed in and around the Cotswolds - and to get in touch - just visit www.oxfordgardendesign.co.uk