Around this time of year, as the glitter of the festive season begins to fade, the majority of my garden maintenance clients expect to look out on a neat and tidy garden, all set for the new growing season ahead: leaves cleared, last year’s flowers cut down and barely a fallen twig out of place. I have to confess that there is a certain satisfaction in digging up spent annuals and cutting down last season’s dessicated perennials – their collapsing, straggly stalks and rotting or crusty brown leaves, if left in situ, can easily give the impression that the garden is unkempt and uncared for.
But as both a keen wildlife gardener and photographer I can also offer a different viewpoint. Seed heads provide a vital source of food for hungry birds, especially during a harsh winter, and hollow flower stalks make great hiding places for countless invertebrates. To add to the argument, all it takes is a touch of frost to add sparkle, structure and interest to the winter flower border; cut them down early and all you’re left with is bare soil until the first bulbs show their faces in early spring. For many flowering shrubs and hardy perennials the dried flower stalks and old seed heads provide protection for the new growth to come, so there’s also a gardening case to be made for going easy with the secateurs until absolutely necessary.
As is often the case, a compromise may be the answer. Tidy up those areas of the garden in full view by all means, but why not also leave the odd corner of the garden to see out the winter as nature intended? The new shoots and fresh growth of spring will be here soon enough, but just a few more weeks of ‘untidiness’ could make a huge difference to overwintering insects and birds, so helping to maintain the natural balance of wildlife in the garden. There are photo-opportunities in frosty weather too!