Great British Gardens; Leaves – Litter or Leave; Naturalistic Nurture

It was with some trepidation that we looked forward to our last garden visitors of the year since Paul (and Angela) set up, own, and still run the excellent and useful Great British Gardens website.

Worth checking out as a resource for anyone keen on visiting gardens in the UK, since the diverse range of gardens included is handily grouped both geographically and by features of interest. (snowdrops, woodland, autumn colour, etc).

I’d spoken to Paul a fortnight earlier about whether Gelli Uchaf would merit inclusion, and as well as being keen to list it, he mentioned he was staying in the area for a few days towards the middle of October. So I invited them over to meet us, and have a look around. They fortunately managed to visit on a mild day when the late afternoon sun shone, and the garden was as good as one might expect for the time of year.

We really enjoyed meeting them both and were pleased that they enjoyed our garden as it winds down for the year. Paul commented that it was their favourite type of garden, although some people wouldn’t enjoy it given its informality in most areas. We entirely agree and although we don’t really strive for manicured perfection we have tried to create a naturalistic feel to our planted up space.

It’s always interesting to see what plants appeal to visitors so late in October, and our 3 distinctive, signature perennial stars of the season here, were once again noted – Persicaria (or is that now Bistorta?) vaccinifolia, Dahlia merckii, and Saxifrage fortunei rubrifolia.


I’m often intrigued by the nitty-gritty aspects of a garden’s maintenance, which one can’t appreciate on a visit unless one happens to be able to chat with the gardeners. Late October always interests me, since in our garden this is usually a time of considerable effort. When do other gardeners cut back perennials, why, and what do they do with the annual leaf fall? There’s a big shift now to leave things naturally over the winter, but here most perennials turn to brown wet sludge come early November. For many years the nearby and fabulous Aberglasney gardens have had a policy of removing most of the leaf fall from the woodland areas and replacing it with a deep mulch of an imported composted material (? possibly including cocoa shells). The reason apparently is that it limits slug and snail survival. This approach does make the garden look very tidy, and temporarily suppresses weed germination, though also, of course, any seed germination from garden plants. It also looks a little lifeless for several of the winter months.

Here, we’ve gradually moved towards a policy of leaving all leaf “litter” in place throughout the garden, and never applying any mulch material anywhere in the garden apart from the vegetable area, and around the bases of a few select shrubs growing in the poorest shale “soil” areas of the garden. This has advantages in terms of reducing costs, although it does mean a lot of time and effort is spent just now in regularly removing fallen leaves from the paths, lawns, and yard areas, and either composting them or after chopping with the lawnmower, adding back to beds or borders which don’t have large deciduous trees nearby.

The other vital part of late season management is a final detailed visual trawl over many areas of the garden, which now have some form of deciduous or perennial ground cover. The thug-like taller foliage of the likes of Pyrenean Valerian, foxgloves, and evergreen Hellebores has already been cut off at ground level since, in the increasingly milder winters we get, we can’t rely on this being cut back by frosts. Removing it allows all our smaller spring flowering bulbs an easier route to light.

However the other purpose of this late October trawl is to remove the annual secret crop of seedling trees which have seized their moment, often amongst or beneath other foliage, to send down typically long tap roots, and put on a few short inches of growth. Find them in wet October’s moist soil and most pull out, if not easily, then at least with a bit of judicious wiggling. Hazel, ash, and oak are our most frequent secret invaders. Holly, beech, and bramble are less frequent. Some blew in, many will have carried in by jays or rodents, and planted. Miss them, and by next spring the roots will have deepened, branched, and the task will be infinitely harder. Typically, even after a few sessions of spotting them throughout the year, I’ll still find at least one seedling per square metre in many areas of the garden.

Spot the oak and ash seedlings above amongst a sea of Oxalis oregana f. smalliana and Cyclamen hederifolium foliage, carpeting the ground in deep dryish shade beneath an Ulmus hollandica ‘Jaqueline Hillier’ a dwarf elm, now starting to shed its tiny leaves. See what I mean about an almost hands and knees visual trawl?

Ivy, above centre, is the other plant that seems to seize its moment in the summer when gardening activity shifts elsewhere, and underruns mature shrubs and trees. Apart from a few peripheral boundary areas, perennial weeds like creeping buttercup aren’t so much of a problem now as the garden matures and becomes more “naturalistic” in style, and most of the annual weed thugs like hairy bittercress tail off as a problem once garden foliage covers the garden from mid-summer onwards. But there’s always great regret on finding the occasional plant of American willow herb, lurking amongst shrubs or trees, with the uppermost soggy seedpods, split ensuring its survival within the garden confines for yet another year. Drat!

I’ve come to realise that this annual leaf fall is indeed one of the most vital elements of having a diverse naturalistic garden – nutrients are drawn up from the deep by tree or shrub roots, and then much organic matter is shed in fallen leaves and fungally re-cycled, with a little help from the worm population, into the ecosystem. If it’s just allowed to sit there over the winter months. Establishing low-ground cover planting is critical for this since it helps to trap and retain those tougher leaves, like oak, which stay dry and can be blown large distances on multiple occasions. The same process takes place, vitally , in our meadows. Over time on several of our toughest areas with no topsoil at all, initially, just shifted or exposed shale, or even just yard chippings, such leaf “litter” becomes the vital nurturing material for fungi and eventually opens up the potential for successful bulb planting. In the more naturalistic garden the challenge, as ever, is in selecting the plants which will survive and thrive in the particular mix of conditions peculiar to the site, and in controlling the inevitable attempt of nature to march the garden (at least in our climate and soil) towards mature woodland.

Add in a little bulb planting, and a soggy October soon becomes a surprisingly active time in the garden to set things up for the more exciting months once the garden pauses briefly in November, before the snowdrops and Daphne begin to bloom.

I was surprised to hear that a fellow local NGS gardener, actually marks his tree seedlings with coloured twine when found amongst perennial foliage and then digs them up in the autumn, pots them on, and supplies them to a guerilla gardener who plants them into hedgerows nearby! That’s dedication. Plus that he delays his perennial cutback until February. But then I don’t think he has the masses of snowdrops and other spring bulbs which we have. Check out John and Helen’s wonderful garden, at Ty’r Maes, like ours created from scratch over many years.

The theme of nutrient recycling was echoed in a wonderful film we watched this week – “Riverwoods – An Untold Story”

Available for private viewings via a download code/link, it’s well worth watching the full film. (Thanks to Chris for alerting me to this). The photography is stunning, and it highlights the role of streamside trees, leaf litter, et al in providing habitat and nutrition for spawning salmon. But also that the salmon themselves – at least historically, when their numbers were far greater – in re-visiting their rivers of origin after many years at sea, introduce significant nutrients into the otherwise nutrient-poor ecosystems of the river catchments where they spawn.

A final recent riff on the natural recycling processes involved in diverse ecosystems is highlighted by the experiences of organic agroforestry. Still in its relative infancy in the UK, there’s a fascinating insight into how it all works on the website of Wakelyn’s farm in Suffolk, which has just been selected as a finalist for the BBC R4 food and farming awards for 2022. Click here to listen to the broadcast, or visit their website to see how it all meshes together as a concept.



After a late start, it’s been another bumper season for several waxcap mushrooms, which now grow well in all our meadows – this year we’re into the thousands for the pretty pink ballerinas, Porpolomopsis calyptriformis, and a few weeks earlier had large groups of butter yellow waxcaps, Hygrocybe ceracea, in the upper hay meadow.


One of the most pleasing aspects of the garden this autumn has been the continuing development of the yew boundary to the West of the croquet lawn. We even had a couple of garden visitors who said they loved the window effect with views through to the landscape. It’s always nice when someone else appreciates what’s only taken about 25 years to achieve! Starting with half a dozen tiny yew seedlings dug out from our old garden in Bristol and plonked into this area. Originally, the idea was that they’d diffuse or at least limit the winds sweeping in from the South West. Early on the idea was for simple blocky monolith shapes. Gradually the tiny yews grew into more columnar forms. Then, after reading the wonderful ancient medieval Welsh Mabinogion myth/story, I had the idea of forming one or more of the yews into a monolith with a hole in it, like the slate stone pierced by a spear thrown at Gronw – read a brief summary and see an image of a real “Llech Gronw”, here.

Needless to say, this became practically too challenging for me. The yews meanwhile grew taller, and for a while, because of problems with trimming the tops, took on a vague pineapple form with spiky tops. I kept the sides trimmed but allowed them to begin to meet at the top. By now the idea of windows in a dense green wall had become clearer to me. This is where we are now, but another problem has come to light. The Camellias which were planted in the foreground, along with red stemmed Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, and a few Hydrangeas were starting to block the views through to the windows. So the last couple of years have seen me beginning to thin the Camellia foliage, in a vaguely cloud-pruning manner. Happy with this, and where it’s leading I realised that some of the straggly Hydrangeas had to be thinned or even razed to the ground. Completing this just in time for leaf fall, I was struck by the wonderful effect of late afternoon sunshine streaming through the windows and illuminating the leaves of the Cornus, a pale blue (un-named) mophead Hydrangea macrophylla, and even the papery silvery seed capsules of a single white honesty plant lurking behind a Hydrangea. So now the final (?) vision, or idea is to aim for that very fleeting effect, repeated through the few windows or openings, and probably only ever experienced for a rare few moments each year, when low bright sunshine streams through and creates almost stained glass views of fading leaf colours.

The dreaming goes on.