I was recently asked by a customer to 'put the garden to bed'. Over the Years I've come to realise that, while some plants may enter a near dormant state, the garden as whole is never truly asleep. Even when nothing appears to be happening on the surface, underground bulbs are starting to push up next year's flower spikes and the buds on shrubs and trees are slowly forming and expanding, ready to burst into activity in the spring. But what this phrase often implies is the scything down of everything and raking the soil clean to leave an earthen desert.
I shy away from this excessive neatness and tidiness (my wife would say I carry on that approach indoors as well!). I like seeing the frost covered old flower heads of fennel and Miscanthus catching the winter sun, or the black birds rooting through the leaf litter. If cutting everything to ground level at the first hint of winter was such a horticultural benefit, plants would have evolved a way to do this. Leaving the stems on herbaceous plants provides extra frost protection. Green growth above ground means there?s still a valuable food store to be absorbed back into the roots, bulbs, corms and rhizomes.
The trick is to remove the old growth at the right time. With plants like Hemerocallis, Crocosmia and most ornamental grasses, I wait until the old growth comes away with the lightest pull. With Sedum spectabile I leave the flower heads on until late spring when the worst frosts have passed.
Plants like Cannas, dahlias and hardy banana plants need the protection that a mulch provides, and where possible I use as much of the abundant and free leaf litter as I can find, and it?s a great soil improver and weed suppressant.
So before you give the whole garden a buzz cut you may want to consider giving the reigns to nature and enjoy the fading summer embers.