Weekend work :gardening

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Even in the best regulated gardens many flower beds are looking untidy now. On a dry day it is worth spending some time removing dead annuals and spent stems of herbaceous plants. The early spring bulbs will look so much prettier emerging from a neat bed than from a tangle of dead leaves. If left, the decaying plants will also provide shelter for slugs and snails, which will emerge in spring to take the tops off plants. Try to tread as little as possible on the flower beds when the weather is wet, so the soil does not become compacted.

Many lawns are now covered in worm casts, which will squidge flat into nasty-looking mud patches if stepped on. These muddy areas make it harder for the finer grasses to thrive, so the lawn will ultimately become coarser. At the end of a windy or sunny day, the casts should be dry enough to sweep off.

Spend some time sorting out the garden's support systems. Make sure trellising, stakes, wall hooks and wires are secured and the plants well fastened to them. Generally, trellises and poles need to be twice as strong as you might think - climbers, especially robust twiners such as wisteria, grow quickly from spindly twigs to heavy branches.

For a bit of winter colour, think about window boxes and tubs. Winter- flowering pansies and polyanthus are obvious choices, but also consider the tiny shrubs that can be bought for pounds 2 or less. 6in- or 8in-high variegated hollies and euonymus, or skimmias with big trusses of buds, will all provide interest for the whole winter, and they can be thrown away in spring without too much of a qualm if there is no room for them elsewhere. All these, and heathers, will stay looking good in darker areas. Pansies and polyanthus will need a little more light to look at their best. Paler, warmer colours stand out much better in the darker days of winter, so a tub of lemon pansies will be far more eye-catching than blue. If the tub is big enough, a centrepiece of a bright orange striped phormium would complement the pansies. The orange-berried winter cherry, or solanum, will survive on a warm window sill, although it can be irresistible to blackbirds - and if it loses its berries it loses its point.

Apples and pears can be pruned now. If a tree has been left unpruned for several years, concentrate on removing one or maybe several branches entirely, rather than trying to take something off every branch. The middle of the tree should be opened up to allow light and air in, and any large wounds should be treated with a disease preventative. Thin, whippy branchlets which have the smaller, non-flowering buds on them, should be reduced by a third to a half.

If the garden lacks interest at this time of year, watch out for trees and shrubs that are coming into flower in other gardens, to work out what to buy. Autumn cherries begin to flower as soon as their leaves drop, and may stay in flower throughout the winter. Some species of mahonia are in flower already, although the heavenly-scented cultivar "Charity" will not flower for another month. For scent, there is already blossom on some viburnums, notably V farreri. The winter-flowering irises, I unguicularis and I lazica, are also worth considering. They will be coming into flower very soon, and a couple of bulbs planted in a dry, sunny spot will produce 30 or 40 winter blooms in a couple of years. If you have a Christmas rose showing buds just through the ground, a glass bell cloche may bring them into flower for Christmas day.

Anna McKane

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