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How to tidy up your autumn garden - and still respect the creepy crawlies

Spider web on vine leave in autumn
Spider web on vine leave in autumn Credit: Alamy 

There’s been a shift in recent weeks. I felt it as soon as August moved into September – fresh mornings, a chill in shade, a quietening of insects.

The garden has been shrinking back: the meadow, which is now mostly shorn, no longer buzzes with bees and flies, or fills my nostrils with the heady scent of nectar. The pond has less activity, although the dragonflies eventually arrived and, while I’ve not seen any egg-laying or mating, I’m hopeful my pond made a suitable habitat for them. Only the butterflies keep the thrill of summer alive; recent sunny days have seen red admirals, large and small whites, the odd speckled wood and – gloriously and unexpectedly – a small copper nectaring on my sedums and Verbena bonariensis.

Autumn is, typically, a time for hard work in the garden. It’s when we gardeners finally wrestle with the borders and move things around, chop things back and plant bulbs. As a wildlife gardener, this poses problems for me: I’m desperate to pull the borders apart and replant. I foolishly planted an echinacea behind a cirsium and there are many plants in the front garden that were dwarfed by taller, more vigorous specimens this summer. One of my three scarlet ‘Beauty of Livermere’ poppies is actually white – and I want to replace the (enormous) everlasting sweet pea with a winter-flowering clematis.

The list goes on, and that’s before I’ve found space for the hundreds of bulbs I’ve bought. Yet every dig and cut reduces habitat for one thing or another. Ladybirds will no longer have seedheads to creep into, caterpillars will lose leaf litter to hide beneath. At every turn I disturb a garden spider web, and a bout of weeding last week had me hoofing out precious eggs and caterpillars (which I safely rehomed).

As the steward of a new garden, I have to accept that it needs work, and get on with doing it now – it’s much less damaging to disturb wildlife when conditions are still mild. But it’s important to do so conscious of the wildlife I’m displacing. So, while I destroy, so do I create.

The everlasting pea debris now rests beneath the garden bench, where insects, amphibians and small mammals might take shelter. Although the advice for wildflower meadows is to cut everything back by early autumn, I’ve left a buffer zone around the pond, which I won’t touch until April, so caterpillars and other beings can hunker down in the thatch. I’ll fill nooks in my log piles with dry autumn leaves, and I’ve piled clippings and other waste into a corner, rather than my closed compost bin, so any creatures I’ve missed among the greenery can move elsewhere if they need to (or hibernate there 
if they wish).

Once I’ve finished my work, I’ll dress the borders with a layer of well-rotted horse manure, and then a second layer of leaf mould. The horse manure is for the plants – I moved here in January and don’t know when the soil was last fed – but the leaf mould is for the wildlife. Each year, I gather elm leaves from the streets and pack them into old compost bags, which I pile up behind the shed on the allotment. The leaves shrink to a third of their volume but the resulting organic matter is exceptional; black, rich and sweet smelling, and ready for mulch in just a year.

Replicating the natural cycle of death and rebirth, leaf mould is a soil conditioner packed with micronutrients, which worms will drag into the soil and bacteria and fungi will work together to make magic happen. In the meantime, centipedes, beetles, caterpillars and all manner of other invertebrates will shelter among the matter, and birds will pick though it for a feast.

In years to come, when the garden is more mature, I’ll be able to leave more of it for wildlife in autumn. But, for now, I’m happy with the compromise.