13 easy winter garden updates

Gardening expert Matt James offers simple advice and inspiration for your outside space this winter

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There is plenty to do in the garden in winter, from essential maintenance to helping wildlife through the toughest time of the year, to design planning.  Gardening expert Matt James offers simple advice and inspiration for keeping your outside space looking great this winter.

1. Install outdoor lighting to add another dimension 

Outdoor lighting is a must for cheering up your garden in winter. Sunlight doesn’t discriminate, but in the night garden you can focus attention on sculptural elements, trees and topiary. Spotlights are the most versatile fittings and can be positioned at different angles for varying effects. Use a powerful torch to experiment. 

2. Act on any privacy issues that become apparent

If gaps in boundaries begin to show in winter, then trees, particularly evergreens, tall-but-thin shrubs and bamboo, hedges and pleached trees (hedges on ‘stilts’) are useful, but they’re not immediate solutions – unless you buy large plants. For instant impact, choose woven hazel or willow screens, tight-knit trelliswork or wooden louvres, all of which will let in light. Be mindful of height restrictions: in back gardens it’s two metres, and at the front of the house one metre (unless local covenants apply). Anything higher will need planning permission. With these limits in mind it’s a good idea to create private areas or ‘rooms’ within your garden, where you are free to plant taller trees and shrubs as you choose.

Find out more about improving privacy in your garden

3. Repair fences, pergolas and paving

Scrub surfaces clean with a stiff brush and hot, soapy water; or use a pressure washer, but carefully. Repair, sand, repaint or revarnish garden furniture, too.

4. Introduce some winter colour to lift gloomy days

Fill containers with winter pansies, polyanthus and violas, one species per pot. For more creative displays, partner them with evergreen grasses, perennials, small shrubs and bulbs.

5. Tidy beds and borders

Clip lawn edges and clear spent stems from perennials, but save anything with attractive seed heads – these look magical when frosted. Similarly, don’t cut back deciduous grasses; leave these until late February, as the dead foliage also helps protect the plant’s crown.

20 tips for beautiful garden borders

6. Consider the size of your beds and borders

Narrow strips allow little space for plants, and thin borders tight to boundaries are somewhat unimaginative. Be generous; using an edging iron, make borders bigger.

7. Design new planting, or change designs that haven’t worked

Put your ideas down on paper, ideally to scale, before you invest in anything new. Whether you are creating a new bed entirely or just giving a facelift to existing borders, it’s always best to design the area first before undertaking the work.

8. Look at trees and shrubs with brilliantly coloured bark

They are at their best now, and ideal in smaller gardens, where two or more seasons of interest are desirable. The Burgundy Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrulata), chalk-white paper birch (Betula papyrifera), striped snakebark maples, and the cinnamon paperbark maple (Acer griseum) are favourites. Shrubby dogwoods are striking, too, and come in flame-orange, scarlet and yellow.

9. Make a to-do list

The garden is relatively quiet in winter, in terms of day-to-day tasks, so it is the ideal time to tackle any garden jobs that you may have put off doing. Experienced gardeners also know that, even though the growing season has finished, there’s always work to do and spring isn’t that far off. Anything done now will lessen the load later on.

10. Help birds this winter

Put out food and water, daily if required. A range of feed will attract different species: robins adore live mealworms and blackbirds love rotten apples; sunflower seeds will attract finches, tits and dunnocks, while woodpeckers love peanuts. It’s not too late to put up a nest box, either.

11. Make your own leaf mould, a nutrient-rich soil conditioner

Gather fallen leaves into a bag, tie it at the top, puncture a few evenly spaced holes in the sides and hide away out of sight. This time next year you’ll have lovely compost, ready to use.

12. Move any plants that could be positioned in a better place

Small deciduous trees, shrubs and roses can be lifted bare-root and replanted before mid-March. Everything else, especially evergreens and conifers, needs rootballing. For detailed advice and step-by-step instructions on this, search for ‘moving plants’ on the RHS website.

13. Dig deeply

It’s a good time to open up soils, improve drainage and add organic matter. Cultivate your proposed beds and borders, and your vegetable plot, before Christmas, and the larger clods will break down into a fine finish over the coming months, ready for planting during the warmer weather.

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