After the fall: a tree in the woods. Photograph: Terry Runham /Alamy
It won’t be long now until the shortest day of the year. The leaves are down and swirled into corners. The colour is drained from the autumn and through newly naked branches, low light falls to the floor for the first time in months.
I love this time of year for the countermovement it provides to the rush of the growing season. There are signs of what is yet to come in the embryonic catkins already formed on the hazel, but for a brief window the garden relaxes. Toppled borders might appear chaotic, with stems akimbo and shadows of spent foliage flung to the floor, but the remains of the growing season are far from ugly if you take the time to see the beauty in the natural cycle.
Selective clearing will juxtapose the disorder. Leave things a while for the worms to take the leaves back to earth and you will see that many of the perennials are as beautiful in death as they were alive. Cinnamon pods on the lilies will dry once they have jettisoned their seed to reveal silvered interiors, while fennel stands tall to catch frost on its umbels. It will smell deliciously of liquorice on a bright day in January and when it gets cold the seed that weights the Verbena bonariensis will draw birds to feast.
Frost on Verbena bonariensis. Photograph: Alamy
Cut the miscanthus to the base and the light that illuminates it will simply fall to the floor. Clear the beds and the homes that the stems provide for overwintering insects will be swept away in a moment. Take the breathing space the season is naturally offering us and clear only what is needed to keep chaos in check.
Trees and shrubs are showing you their limbs now that the foliage is down. There are mixed opinions about the viability of dead wood in a garden – some say it is a vector for honey fungus – but I prefer to take the risk. Healthy trees and shrubs will not be prone if they are kept in good condition and there are plenty of other beneficial fungi that need a place to call their own.
Our neighbour down at the farm believes in the same principle. From time to time one of his elderly poplars has come crashing across the brook that divides us. Although I have been happy to have the wood, I left the first tree that came down for the air of wildness that it lent the field. We cleared the smashed-up wood to burn, and made the remains into twiggy cairns. Three years on and the wildlife has moved in, revealed by rustling from within and hedgehog tracks. The fallen tree is home to verdant moss, with ferns and even an elder seedling growing in the clefts.
Not everyone has the space to allow such evolution, but even the smallest garden should have an area of stillness that is left to itself. An eco-pile is nothing more than a decomposing heap where the woody clippings can make their way back to humus. If you cannot have a bonfire or access to a chipper, a carefully stacked pile in a shady corner will provide a home for slug-eating ground beetles and a host of other beneficial inhabitants.
Let foliage lie in the winter and it will act as a protective eiderdown. The worms will pull the bulk of it to earth for you and the rest can be tidied in the spring clear-up.
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