This week (it is now mid November) I looked out of the kitchen window onto a dreary site. The borders that were once full of subtle autumn colours has changed to damp, brown mounds of leaves. There is the occasional speckle of colour from Scabiosa ochroleuca and the odd persistent aster flower, but generally the scene is uninspiring.
So now is the time to cut back and tidy the garden. Or so I thought until this morning, which dawned white with frost. Amongst the dull brown mound of leaves a group of sparrows was busily hopping from one old Persicaria flower spike to another pecking at the seeds. This scene served to remind me how important it is NOT to cut back perennial plants until you have to. The seeds will feed birds through the winter and provide insects somewhere to over winter. The insects in turn will feed smaller birds such as blue tits.
Having said that, there is going to have to be a compromise.
The garden at the back of the house is a series of small borders. Four long rectangular borders fill the upper part of the garden near the house, and on the slope below sits four large square borders. I am going to trim some of the plants in the upper borders so that I can see through to the lower borders, leaving just enough plants untouched to keep the sparrows and blue tits happy.
What to leave
Last year they loved the round seed heads of the Japanese Anemones. These will burst into fluffy cotton balls as winter progresses. I will also keep the Persicarias and any other plants that have not shed their seeds. Achilleas and Phlomis russelliana are also worth keeping because the old flower stems are sculptural and stay upright right through to spring. The phloxes and daylilies will be cut back as they look so dreary.
By the end of winter the whole garden will need cutting back to allow new foliage to emerge cleanly. It is also a chance to remove weeds (especially perennial ones) and any dead foliage that might harbour fungal spores. But all this can wait until we get days that are warm and sunny enough to make me emerge from the warm cocoon of the house.