Gardening: Better left alone

Resist the temptation to clear up your garden before winter, urges Nigel Colborn. For it is in the dishevelled beds and undergrowth that the wild things are
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NO ONE CAN deny the poignant beauty of autumn's gradual decline into winter, but Nature has always been such a scruffy dresser, chucking discarded summer foliage about like a teenager changing for a party. Beds and borders become increasingly dishevelled, and by the time the first frosts arrive, very little is left in flower.

So there is an almost irresistible temptation to tidy up. Fingers itch to grab secateurs and snip away at dying perennials, or to rake fallen leaves from under the shrubs. As the afternoons draw in, one feels unable to relax until every inch of the garden has been spruced up and put to bed for winter. But such virtue should be resisted for the sake of the creatures that have to go on living out there long after your patio-lounging days are over. Tidiness is the enemy of wildlife and too much zealous snipping will take its toll, not just on the birds and butterflies, but also on the less attractive but more useful creatures such as the pest-crunching centipedes and ground beetles.

Don't think for one second, though, that to be wildlife-friendly a gardener must give way to anarchy. Far from it: order and sweet reason can reign almost as securely as they do in a sterile, immaculate plot. The key to making your garden hospitable for the wild things is taking a different management approach.

Perennials, for instance, should be cut back and may need lifting and dividing. But if they are left until early spring rather than tidied in October, the benefits are enormous. The old stems and leaves, as well as providing cover for birds and insects, will protect the rootstocks from extremes of temperature. Long after flowering, achilleas, goldenrods and Michaelmas daisies will attract seed-eating birds. Blackbirds, robins and song thrushes love to skulk about in the dead undergrowth, rummaging for worms, snails and beetles, while the wrens, blue tits and coal tits pick small insects out of the dying perennials. Too much tidying could impair their food supply unless you defer it until spring. In early autumn, the hedgehogs take over the foraging ground at night, but very soon they will be wrapping themselves in dry leaves and bedding down to hibernate, probably in the middle of your best border.

Besides all the good you'll be doing the birds and hedgehogs, an untrimmed border can look almost as ravishing in decline as it did in high summer. If well planned, it will carry a selection of perennials which look as handsome dead as they did alive. And if backed by an evergreen or two, or anything that bears sparkling berries, your display will turn heads. Sedums, especially the taller, more erect kinds like Sedum spectabile 'Brilliant' make a bold outline with their big, flat-topped flower-heads looking like elegant brown broccoli spears. Later, when these become dusted with hoarfrost, they are as lovely as the purest of spring flowers. Siberian irises, too, make a handsome winter outline with their three-sided seed capsules, as do centaureas - perennial cornflowers - and the curious Phlomis russeliana, whose fruit bodies appear in whorls along their stems.

Flowers, especially those with clean colours, grow scarcer by the week at this time of year, but there are some which will soldier on almost until Christmas. Everyone knows chrysanthemums, but the very late outdoor variety 'Emperor of China' is not as widely grown as it deserves to be. The blooms, produced in lax sprays, are silvery pink - a hue made more alluring by the November leaves which fire up to the purplish red of Beaujolais Nouveau. This variety is of great antiquity, probably grown in ancient China.

There are other species which flower on into winter. The tall, erect monkshood Aconitum carmichaelii is a late bloomer, with bright blue flower spikes. Vernonia noveboracensis, a tall North American prairie weed, has fluffy purple flower-heads which look their best if coordinated with the white-bloomed Eupatorium rugosum. You could even add a late rose for good measure. The hybrid musk 'Cornelia', raised in the 1920s, is a stalwart autumn bloomer, especially if dead-headed immediately after its summer flush. The buds are palest lemon, opening to creamy white.

As well as looking pretty, flowers like these are important for wildlife. They provide late bees with nectar, and enable the butterflies about to hibernate to stoke up enough nourishment to see them through to spring. Some of the last on the wing are the Peacock, Comma and Small Tortoise- shell butterflies, all of which hibernate here.

There are butterfly species, however, whose range is more limited. If you want to coax these into your garden you will need to provide the right habitat. The ochre-and-black Wall Brown, the shade-loving Speckled Wood and the sombre Ringlet butterflies all need long grass to com-plete their life-cycles. So if you have space, allow a little grassland to grow unchecked. Plant bulbs of crocus, narcissus and snakes head fritillary into the sward now and the neglected grass will provide a gorgeous spring display.

Climbing and wall plants are important for wildlife, especially in a small garden where vertical planting areas exceed the horizontal. The evergreen ivy is one of the most valuable as it is a haven for birds, small mammals and hibernating insects. Its late flowers provide nectar and are followed by copious supplies of rich, black berries.

Blending ivy with other climbers will enable you to enjoy flower or foliage colour throughout the year. The purple-leaved vine, for example, carries small, bitter grapes - horrible for humans but much enjoyed by the birds - and looks superb in summer if the leaves contrast with the vivid single flowers of the climbing rose 'Scarlet Fire'. At this time of year, its heavy crop of orange hips will make another dazzling contrast with the vine foliage, darkening by now to a rich crimson. By blending such climbers with clematis for colour and honeysuckle for fragrance, it is easy to develop a dense, attractive and long-running display which is wildlife-friendly.

In terms of conservation, pruning and training such a tangled mat of climbers is best left until late February, before the birds begin to nest. Tease out and cut back summer-flowering clematis and and tidy up the rest as best you can. The result may look a tad scruffier than the perfect fan-trained peach, but all that cover increases the chance that song thrushes, blackbirds, dunnocks, greenfinches, long-tailed tits, wrens, linnets and robins will honour you by rearing their young in your garden. And you can buy peaches at Tesco.

Old piles of logs or stones, with or without climbers growing over them, also make good havens. Lizards and their legless relative the slow worm will hibernate here, as will toads if they can crawl into a dark, dry place. You can make "toad bedrooms" by placing a large paving slab over a shallow depression lined with coarse sand. Make an entrance by inverting a short length of guttering and fixing it so that the tunnel it forms leads into the sandy depression. And if the toad's ugliness puts you off, bear in mind that like the hedgehog, they are superlative slug-gulpers.

Frogs prefer moister resting places for winter. Some will hibernate at the bottom of a garden pond, others will creep under matted reeds or stones. It is important, therefore, to disturb the water as little as possible between now and the end of February, but keep the water as pure and sweet as possible by removing dying leaves and those that have blown in from the trees. If left, they will rot and could develop into a toxic tea which is damaging to water life.

Of course, it is far easier to preach laissez-faire gardening at this time of year than to practise it, and you may find that the untidiness wears down your spirits too much. If it does, consider working through the borders sympathetically, removing only the most offending plants and the ugliest heaps of accumulated herbage. Leaves should be raked from lawns, pathways and rock gardens anyway, since small, vulnerable plants can be damaged if they are overlaid by rotting foliage, but it is still of huge benefit if you can leave as much cover as possible, especially where the mess won't show. If toads and hedgehogs are slumbering on your premises, and wrens and longtailed tits can tuck themselves up in your ivy for winter - isn't that reward enough for tolerating the mess? !