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Getting your garden ready for the winter neednít be a chore, as Joe Swift reveals with his quick and easy solutions to tidying up

Okay okay. I know the concept of being able to use your garden as a real outdoor room throughout the colder months is getting a bit too far fetched for anybodyís imagination. But that doesnít mean that the garden doesnít exist, and believe me this is the perfect time to do a few quick jobs (this is the 10-minute gardener, honest), and help ease the winter blues by projecting your thoughts towards spring. In fact, this is probably one of the busiest months in the gardening calendar, with a variety of things that need doing. I know at this time of year itís difficult to motivate yourself to get out there, but any time spent on your garden now will keep it looking tidy through the winter, and be beneficial well into next year.

Dividing Perennials
Any perennial plants that have finished flowering can have the old leaves and flower heads cut down to ground level. This is the perfect time to lift and divide perennials: the plants are reaching their dormant period but the soil is still workable. As a perennial grows its root system will increase to make a larger clump. These clumps may outgrow their space or you may want to increase the amount of plants you have by dividing them. They can then be planted to fill in any gaps in your planting areas. Get a fork and lift a whole clump. You can then cut through the root system with a knife, or if itís a tough customer get two forks back to back and prise the clump into two. The resulting clumps can be further divided until you have plants the size you would buy in a pot. These can now be replanted with spaces in between to give them room to grow.

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Mulching and Soil Improvement
Mulching may be one of those odd words that sounds funnier the more times you say it, but there is nothing better for the garden than a good old mulch. Clear off all the leaves and cut back perennials before spreading a thick layer (5cm/2in) of organic material over the soil and around all plants. Donít dig it in as it acts like a blanket, keeping the plants protected and warming the soil up early next year. Eventually it will break down into the soil and generally improve the life and moisture retention of your soil, which in turn will improve the health and look of your plants.

Lawns
If you have a lawn there are a few jobs that should be done before it gets too cold. Scarifying will take out the thatch and moss so that the grass gets room to breathe and grow. Use a wire rake, and donít be frightened to scrape hard. Spiking will aerate the lawn, helping air circulate around the grassís roots. This can be done with a fork or on a very compacted lawn you can get a special spiking tool, which will take out small plugs. Backfill the holes youíve made with sharp sand. An autumn lawn feed can be applied now to help the roots of the lawn strengthen themselves through the winter, ready for next seasonís growth. Make sure to read the packet since it can do more harm than good if wrongly used.

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Dig Over Soil
If you have a particularly heavy clay soil this is a good time to dig it over as it will leave the large broken up lumps exposed to the winter frosts, which will help to break it up even further. All types of soils will benefit from a final digging over of the year. Remove any perennial weeds, and dig in the annual weeds into the soil.

Fallen Leaves
Rake or sweep up any leaves from the patio, paths, lawn or planting areas. Donít just throw them away - put them into plastic sacks or bins. They will break down pretty quickly for leaf mould, which is great to dig in when planting trees and shrubs or can be used as a general organic mulch next autumn.

See also the Helping Hands workshops:
Moving or dividing a perennial
Autumn lawn maintenance
Applying fertilizer to lawns
Making leaf mould


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