Clearing up the garden at the end of summer can feel downright melancholy. Spent crops and dead foliage herald shortening days and cooling temperatures. However, all is not lost. You can easily reap some benefit while tidying up in the coming weeks and set yourself up with some useful bits and pieces to aid you in the garden next year.
Recommendations in recent years have been not to tidy up in autumn. Some people frown on cutting back old stalks and seedheads because you might be removing food sources for birds during the up-coming winter months. Certainly, I've noticed goldfinches arriving in packs to enjoy the fluffy seedheads of the few ragwort plants that I allow to stand till February.
So I compromise. Some plants, especially those with fluffy seedheads like Michaelmas daisies and aforementioned ragwort, are left to stand; others are cut down. They don't all go on the compost heap, though.
Protection for seedlings
Prunings can be the most useful things, and I'm an inveterate hoarder. This is not so good when things cascade out of my bedroom cupboard, but it works well in the garden. I always have a stack of prunings, saved to provide useful support and protection for growing veg.
Spiky, thorny cuttings can be used as a defence against cats. Rose prunings and holly twigs encourage them to find somewhere to scratch other than among your newly sown lettuces. Cuttings with plenty of side shoots to mesh together allow you to create a puzzling barrier for pigeons with an eye on young brassicas. For this I've found my many-branching spiraea useful.
Pea sticks are something that can be remarkably difficult to find at the moment you need them. Bamboo canes are no good as peas scramble rather than wind themselves neatly up poles, and they need supports that let them grab hold of spindly twigs in all directions. The sticks need to be fairly sturdy to withstand the weight of the pea plants. Woody prunings from the robust, arching branches of escallonia have proved useful, and I always keep the longer prunings from fruit trees. Make sure you choose prunings with plenty of smaller, thinner wood to cling to and retain a long, bare shaft to plunge into the ground, so that they're stable. The old fruited raspberry canes you cut down now are also useful to intersperse with these more robust supports.
Finding a replacement for bamboo canes is harder. The reason they're so ubiquitous is that they're tough, durable and reliably straight. The ideal answer is to harvest your own bamboo, or grow hazel wands, but where that's not possible a partial replacement is the long canes of Jerusalem artichokes.
You can cut these when the leaves have finally died off after flowering in autumn. Choose only the strongest, thickest canes as they won't last more than a season. I've not found it possible to use them exclusively, as they become quite brittle, but they can be usefully interspersed with bamboo canes—to provide supports for beans to wind up, for example—where they share the strain.
Don't forget the insects
The flimsier canes from Jerusalem artichokes make excellent insect hotels, as the stalks are hollow: cut them into short, equal lengths and bind up into a bundle to create hiding places for solitary bees to nest.
If you have some heavy pruning to do on fruit trees, yielding branches of a chunky diameter, then cutting these into shorter lengths and burying them upright in a cluster, to around half their length, creates, not only a small feature, but an encouraging location for stag beetles to lay their eggs.
Surplus woody trimmings
It's likely that you'll need to get rid of at least some of your woody trimmings. Don't just take them to the dump. If you're allowed a bonfire, then hoard the wood ash in a closed container to keep them dry, in readiness for sprinkling around fruit trees and bushes next spring. Alternatively, put them through a chipper and save the chippings in a sack to mix with lawn clippings and green, sappy growth in the compost bin next year.
New Plants without Effort
Finally, as you clear the beds, keep an eye out for self-sown veggies and herbs. I never now sow sage. For years it was in a bed next to a laid path and I never saw a seedling. Now that I grow it next to gravel, there are plenty to tease from between the stones and pot up, either for the garden or as presents for charity stalls.
If you grow kale, rocket or cress, allow it to flower and seed, you'll find lots of small seedlings around the garden. Transfer them into more useful locations. If you take a good amount of soil out with the roots, they'll never know they've been moved.
Then, curl up with the latest seed catalogue and the knowledge that the garden provides bounty all the year round.
By Helen Gazeley