A cutting response

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The first frosts of winter have had their way with a few dahlias and quite a lot of soft-stemmed herbaceous border plants and the tender bedding ones seeing out their days in containers. And even though the stems of some hardier types haven’t yet been killed off, the foliage has started to die back and most plants are looking as though they’ve had enough of this miserable year.

Cutting back the stems of border plants such as peony, achillea, Russian sage and columbine before winter is good garden hygiene. Pests and diseases will have fewer places to over-winter – but make sure that you compost only the material that’s disease-free.

Any stems carrying seed heads beloved of the birds or perfect for an autumnal photo-shoot are worth leaving standing. These include the stems of grasses, poppies, echinacea and other cone flowers. And bear’s britches (Acanthus) and liatris produce upright and sturdy stems that will remain attractive for many months.

So once you’ve finished with the shears and secateurs, stay outdoors and start planting up beds with winter-flowering bedding that will continue to bloom in spring. Primula, polyanthus and primrose are hardy enough in most areas to survive a few years, producing vibrant pockets of colour.

If the soil is poor it pays to buy a bag of soil conditioner or dig out some well-rotted compost – organic matter will improve the water-holding capacity of light soils and improve the drainage in heavy ones. With all that done, collect all fallen leaves that have a tendency to settle in flower and shrub borders. Leaving them to rot down may seem like the easy option, but they provide comfy shelters for slugs, snails and other destructive pests.

So if you can’t be bothered building a proper container to hold them (the leaves, not the pests) ram the leaves into empty compost bags and give them a soaking. They should rot down slowly over the next couple of years to provide some decent leafmould that can be mixed into home-made growing compost or used as a mulch on beds and borders.

And before you hang up the Barbour and head indoors for a cup of tea and a digestive, sprinkle slug pellets around flowers, fruit and vegetables to provide protection against molluscs before they hunker down to hibernate.

If you are worried about household pets joining in the lethal feast, pop the pellets under some stones to keep them safe.