Alys Fowler: decay

‘I spend all winter putting the garden to bed.’ Photograph: Alamy

A few years back, I went to the last night of the legendary Portland, Oregon nightclub Satyricon, where a band called Big Daddy Meat Straw went a little wild on stage. I found myself talking to a punk who had recently taken up gardening. She said she’d always hated Oregon’s warm, damp autumns because they were a precursor of the even damper winter that made her depressed, but now she’d seen the light. “Everything rots so well out here! It makes for the best soil.” How fitting that a punk should love the nature of compost: out of chaos comes beauty. Right now, my garden smells of that process, the gentle rotting back into the soil.

The tender things outdoors, the cucumbers and tomatoes, are wilting away and the damp earth smells of moulds and matter. I love the way nature starts to tackle next year’s fertility cycle, drawing all she can into the soil. The compost pile has sunk overnight.

Although I love that heap, I am interested in what I can keep in place to break down. Leaving all that is pretty, such as seedheads and architectural stems, is worth it for when the frost comes and sprinkles everything with diamond dust.

It also benefits the birds and insects. Seedheads ignored now will be feasted upon in a month. If they no longer stand up, gather them and hide them in the margins. Once battered, they become the bug hotel you don’t have to build.

Autumn leaves need to be swept off the lawn, but they don’t have to be removed from beds with tough perennials in them. Still, you shouldn’t leave a mat of wet leaves sitting on the crown of a plant, any more than you would put a wet towel on your head if you had to stand outside all winter; move the leaves to the sides of plants, particularly around Mediterranean sorts.

Here they will make an overwintering habitat for insects and other creatures. Unfortunately, that includes slugs. If the bed is full of perennials that are dying back, they won’t do much harm; it is another matter if it’s full of salads. However, blackbirds, thrushes and beetles won’t come by for a slug supper with no leaves to hunt through.

I spend all winter putting the garden to bed, creating a nice blanket to cover the soil. I remove anything that will swamp its neighbours while collapsing. Where there are no autumn leaves, I mulch with garden compost. In spring, what is left can be gathered up, though even this isn’t necessary. If you gently part the soil, you’ll find the worms are already at work.