This time of year is usually considered a quiet time for gardeners, but there are plenty of essential jobs to keep us busy. Here are some of the most important…
Clear Dead, Dying and Diseased Plants and Weeds
It can be tempting to leave dead or dying plants where they are for the moment and clear up what’s left of them in the spring, but by doing so you’ll be lending a helping hand to many pests – slugs and snails for example will happily feast on this material, meaning they’re in the perfect place to start munching on your precious seedlings next spring. Other pests will overwinter on organic debris, so removing the dead material takes away their habitat and leaves the soil exposed so that winter weather and predators, such as birds, can naturally keep them in check.
Most of this material can be composted, turning this season’s waste into next season’s organic matter. Diseased material should be removed promptly at any time of the year, and this is no exception – doing so reduces the chance of spreading diseases such as blight and clubroot. Dispose of it through municipal green waste collections where they exist, as these use high temperatures to break down the material and kill off disease. Alternatively, you can burn them at home – see below for more on burning your garden waste…
It’s also a good time of year to tackle those perennial weeds and control plants that are prolific spreaders, such as ivy, or self-seeders like poppies. Dig them, pull them or chop them, taking care to remove as much of the stems and roots as you can. Doing this now will weaken the plants, making them more susceptible to winter weather. By the time the spring comes, it will be easier to see which ones still need your attention. As with diseased material, avoid composting perennial weeds, and burn them instead.
Current gardening wisdom is not to be too tidy however. Make sure there are areas of your garden where pest predators can overwinter, such as a bug hotel, and you can leave some crops in the ground to flower and provide an early source of nectar in the spring, and to provide seed for birds or for saving to re-sow in your garden.
Burn Waste to Produce Ash
Burning garden waste which cannot be composted or put to other good use can still provide a valuable product for your garden – ash – and will help you to easily get rid of diseased and woody material and weeds.
Wood ash (as opposed to coal ash) can be a great addition to the garden. It contains potassium (or potash), which is a vital nutrient for crops. Ash is alkaline, so take care when using it on your soil. Use small amounts in your compost, especially if you compost lots of acidic material like citrus peel, or use it as a substitute for lime where you’ll be growing brassicas to reduce the risk of clubroot. It’s also an excellent supplement for fruiting plants such as apples, raspberries and tomatoes.
Carry Out General Maintenance
Most sheds and outbuildings will benefit from some maintenance and repair before the winter. Check for and fix any loose or rotten boards and make sure that door hinges are in good order to help eliminate draughts.
Sharpen and oil the blades of gardening tools. After a season of use they can become dull and ineffective. Vegetable oil works just as well as more expensive and less environmentally friendly oils, and it can also be rubbed into the wooden handles of tools.
Wash seed trays, pots, labels and other garden equipment, and allow them to dry to prevent the spread of molds before storing them.
Prepare Your Ground
With weeds and all plants removed, it’s a great time to dig over your plot and incorporate organic matter such as compost, ready for spring planting. The winter weather, particularly freezing and thawing action, will break down the organic matter, kill overwintering pests, and help to break down heavy clay and improve its structure and drainage.
Prepare and Protect Perennials and Over-Wintering Crops
Many fruit trees and bushes can be pruned now, so check which varieties you have and the best way to care for them. Make sure that stakes and ties on existing fruiting plants are in good condition, and tie in or stake new growth to prevent it from being damaged by the wind.
Pots and containers should be moved to sheltered areas, and if temperatures are regularly below freezing in your location, make sure they are raised off the ground and wrapped in bubble polythene or sacking to prevent terracotta pots from cracking. Other frost-sensitive plants can be put in a cold frame or glasshouse, where they will stay until spring.
In many areas, you are likely to have crops growing through the winter, for instance Oriental leaves, some root vegetables or brassicas. Clear away leaves and other debris, check netting is in good repair, and install protection in the form of row covers if necessary.
At the end of the growing season it can be tempting to leave the garden behind and retreat to the warmth of indoors, but by tackling some of these tasks now you’ll gain a head start for the next season, ready for the excitement of spring.