The Graips of Sloth: the List of Winter Gardening Don’ts & Dos

This week, our gardener at our Battleby office, Jim Carruthers, shares some great tips on what to do – and NOT to do – to keep our gardens in good shape over winter. 


Fieldfare feeding on ornamental rowan berries. Picture copyright Lorne Gill/SNH.

Many are tempted to atone for the excesses of the festive period by having a good breenge at the garden. This is the way, they reckon, to reduce personal levels of fat, stress, cholesterol, blood pressure and guilt. Frankly, the most positive steps you can take are the ones that lead you back indoors. If you must garden, then there are a few constructive jobs worth doing.  But there are more that, at this time of year, are genuinely counter-productive or that will jeopardise the wildlife in your garden.

One of the fundamental tenets of good husbandry is working with nature not against it. Gardening is essentially an intervention against natural processes. Putting these two aspects together judiciously is the secret of good gardening.  And that stands for wildlife gardening in particular.  Even if you only slightly care for the wildlife in your garden, try to mind and practise the following mantras…

Try not to think tidy, try to think not too tidy, try to not think to tidy…

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) covered in snow.©Lorne Gill

Snowdrops covered in snow. Picture copyright Lorne Gill/SNH.

Here’s an inexhaustive list of random dos & don’ts.

Herbaceous borders- on no account tinker with your perennials. Attacking the herbaceous borders is folly; there are a myriad micro habitats underneath the rammy of collapsed leaves, stems and seedheads. These are invaluable for insects to overwinter, particularly hollow stems. Scruffiness & lack of disturbance are essential. Leaving these intact does also act as an aide-memoire in helping  you mind which plant combinations were successful &, more importantly, which ones were not.

Hedges- do not go raking, scraping or even horking in about them to improve hygiene. You won’t help your hedge or improve your own hygiene. Hedges remain open and soft throughout most of the winter. They allow shelter and security for many small creatures, birds in particular which can continue to forage there when everywhere else is frozen. Birds can lose a tenth of their bodyweight overnight so feed them during the day and let the hedge shelter them at night. The hedge is one large community centre, heated & open to all except sparrowhawks.  Hedge clippings by the way make good mulch, ideal for shrubs with roots close to the surface. For instance, neither blackcurrants and rhododendrons appreciate their roots being scorched by sun or drying winds.

Rhododendron flowers covered in snow, Battleby.©Lorne Gill/SNH

Rhododendrons in the snow at our Battleby grounds. Picture copyright Lorne Gill/SNH.

Ponds should be kept unfrozen to protect their oxygen content. If necessary, thaw by placing a pot of hot water on the surface. Don’t attack the ice with a pinch bar, pick or any other WMD.

Try not to plant much just now, the ground is cold & the long range forecast is full of frosts. Many shrubs, like humans, become brittle during cold periods and they are easily damaged. The best months for planting are October & March. The worst is December when the soil is cold and clarty, just grand for rotting roots. Pruning is not recommended either during these brittle days. But sometime in February you must use a milder day to prune your butterfly bush (Buddleia). Cut down to the existing framework of the shrub by removing all the long flowering shoots from last year. Do not cut into the older wood.

If you must dig, go the vegetable garden. Do some warm-up exercises, speak nicely to your graip and delve uphill if you’re on a slope. It is not too late to plant garlic cloves. The frosts to come affect the cloves, a process called vernalisation, and they produce bigger bulbs when you harvest them in the blithe summer days ahead. Take advantage of another milder day and divide snowdrops ”in the green”. Lift a congested clump and tear apart with some care into little clumps of five stems or so. Purportedly best carried out when the flowers are just passing over.

Frosted bramble leaves.©Lorne Gill/SNH

Frosted bramble leaves. Picture copyright Lorne Gill/SNH.

Other things you could be doing instead of wreaking havoc include some planning. The veg plot is best done with a kindler on the fireside rug. Go through seed catalogues and order up before March. If there are areas upon which you are undecided, look at the Hardy Annual section. They are cheap, cheery and quite straightforward. Avoid varieties which have double flowers to maximise value to wildlife. Simply sow in situ at the start of May.

Visit other gardens.

Go for long walks in suburbia to glean ideas.

Read “The Natural History of the Garden” by Michael Chinery

Happy March

In the meantime, be untidy.

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