Alys Fowler: restrain your urge to tidy the garden

Don’t clear away those tired and broken brown stems – they’re essential to the health of your patch next year

I look at the leek and elephant garlic seedheads that are toppling over, and eye up the snapped-off poppy seedheads and other bleached bits of growth. There are many house-beautiful webs made by the garden spider (Araneus diadematus), with their distinct cross on their backs. The frost will kill off these spiders and with them take down much of the rest of the garden.

The garden is a dishevelled mess and I contemplate tidying it up a bit, but at this point in the season this is an act of mere vanity. We now know that all those tired brown stems are essential for wildlife – in particular, the broken and not so pretty ones. During the coming month the poppy seedheads will tumble and some of the globe artichoke heads will fall as the stems rot. Others will stand proudly, of course, but in my experience those that lie horizontal are the ones that are colonised quickly by other life.

Some creatures may move into the hollow stem and sleep there over the winter. Others may make them the roofs of their subterranean homes. Moulds, mildews and fungi will start to break down the tough lignin of these stems. But before these rot back into the soil, others will feed off those fungi and moulds.

Clearing up the garden now is disastrous, yet it is deep within our gardening culture. We all have an urge to tidy away anything that is less than aesthetically pleasing, but the health of next year’s garden lies in all that is not so appealing.

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