It’s that time of year again – the autumn cleanup, and gosh, is my garden in need of it! Clearing away the skeletons of the growing season and storing the likes of bamboo canes and netting for another year helps keep everything shipshape – and it’s rather cathartic too. But it’s important not to get too carried away; spare a thought for the wildlife that shares our garden and needs food and shelter over winter. The tips in this video should help you strike the right balance.
Clear Away Old Crops
What better place to begin our autumn cleanup than in the vegetable garden? Start by removing all spent crops and crop residues, which if left could serve as a haven for pests and diseases, bridging the gap between this year’s crops and the next’s. If you’re not replanting the ground with a winter crop and conditions are still mild enough, consider sowing a cover crop or green manure, or cover the ground with an organic mulch to protect it from winter weather.
I prefer to delay mulching around fruit trees and bushes like this gooseberry until the end of winter. It means that, once you’ve raked up the leaves, frosts will have a clear run, penetrating into the top layers, which should help to cleanse it of any overwintering pests that might be lurking there.
Lightly forking over the ground will also help to expose grubs to both the chilly air and insect-eating birds.
Take this opportunity to remove canes and other plant supports. Wipe or wash off any soil, leave them to dry off then store them inside or somewhere at least sheltered from the worst of the weather.
Make Use of Fallen Leaves
Autumn is renowned for leaves! By all means rake them up from paths and paving where they can make conditions underfoot slippery, but wherever you can, just let them be. A few out-of-the-way leaf piles, perhaps under shrubs and hedges, can prove invaluable for overwintering wildlife, including many insects, frogs, toads and hedgehogs. The same goes for log piles and the base of open-sided compost heaps.
I’ll be honest: I simply can’t be bothered to sweep the leaves off my lawn! They soon get blown into the borders or taken down into the ground by the worms. But if you have a lot of leaves covering your lawn or if they’re piled against wooden fences or other structures, rake them up and make leaf mould with them. You can find out how in our video on leaf mold.
Definitely do take the time to fish out leaves that have landed in ponds. If they sink to the bottom and rot, they will reduce water quality, with a knock-on impact on wildlife. Pumps and fountains should be removed, cleaned and drained before storing.
Tidy Borders and Lawns
Leave ornamental borders uncut for as long as you can bear. Many beneficial bugs shelter among old plant stems and seed heads, which will also help to feed the birds. There’s no real need to cut back until early spring, when new growth begins to push through. If you crave tidiness, you can always leave just one area uncut.
In a similar vein it’s usually best to leave grass a little longer over winter. Caterpillars and other bugs burrow right down into the thatch, so a close-cropped lawn isn’t going to do them any favours. For this reason set your mower blades fairly high for the final cut of the season. It will help protect the soil and make your turf healthier too. You can also take this opportunity to edge lawns to give a neat, crisp finish.
Help Out Garden Wildlife
Finally, be proactive and do all you can to help garden wildlife. Keep bird feeders topped up. Birds particularly appreciate fatty, high-energy foods during the cold months. Establish a feeding routine, offer water, and clean feeders and bird baths regularly to maintain good hygiene.
In all but the coldest regions, now is a good time to plant new wildlife-friendly hedges. Include berry-producing species like hawthorn or shrubs like pussy willow that will support butterflies. Autumn is also the ideal time to plant spring-flowering bulbs to provide early nectar for pollinators like bees. Daffodils, crocuses, grape hyacinths and the stunning snake’s-head fritillary are a few good choices.
The important point is to consider our garden allies as we go through our garden cleanup checklist. Where will they spend the winter and what will they eat? Share your tips for getting the balance right down below – we’d love to know your views and experiences on this.