Hanging out on the seedy side

A few compelling reasons not to tidy up your borders too early.

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

Every year Mother Nature fills me with awe and wonder.

Throughout the seasons she provides a wealth of plants of every shape, colour, form and texture. As the days grow longer and darker, plants take on a new and, possibly, more interesting profile as they shed their petals leaving us with skeletal forms that can be breathtaking in their beauty.

Old horticultural habits are hard to break and for many years we were advised to tidy up the garden in the autumn ready for winter and once plants had finished flowering they should be cut to the ground.

So at what point did the change happen? Did some cold undergardener forget to perform this task one day? Maybe it wasn’t even a gardener; maybe it was a botanist or a scientist looking for answers? Thank goodness they did for what was revealed was a veined and ghostly scene with all the drama and finesse of a Tchaikovsky ballet. For example, the shapely seedpods of the Chinese lantern plant (Physalis alkekengi), the blackened spires of the rusty foxglove (Digitalis ferruginea) and the paper-thin disks of honesty (Lunaria annua). I’d like to imagine the under-gardener finally revealing all this to his superiors. I hope he got a pay rise!

Alongside the beauty of winter seed heads the added benefits to wildlife have been extensively recorded. The dry hollow stems of perennials provide homes for insects through the winter and the seeds are vital food for birds and small mammals. So everyone’s a winner: we can enjoy the additional season of interest from our gardens while beneficial insects and birds are encouraged to take up permanent residence and help keep our flowers pest-free in the growing season. What more reason need there be for allowing our gardens to age gracefully?

I only wish I could do the same!