The cold of late autumn can make it difficult to tend neglected gardens, but a fortifying nip can get you out improving the soil and installing seedlings. By Helen Razer.

Reviving a garden for winter

The author’s garden, awaiting attention.
Credit: Sam Quigley

My garden is currently not so much a sight for sore eyes as it is one for the lens of a garden reality show. The entire thing is a makeover “before” picture that sustains only chickweed, and possibly a family of rats. If the landscape militia from Channel Nine happened by, they’d tear everything up and replace it with low-maintenance mulch and those plants generously called “architectural”. Who could blame them? I have been for some months a garden vagabond and deserve nothing more than tanbark and a yucca.

I offer this confession of neglect for both our sakes. If I tell you that this season I have already forgotten to prune my roses, dig manure in or even rip the corpse of the Marmande tomato from the back bed –I’m still a bit angry with it for producing such mushy fruit last summer – you are likely to feel productive by contrast. If I tell myself that you are still enjoying the last of your well-nourished dahlias and have already eaten a crop of autumn broccoli raised from seed, I am likely to become more productive for shame. Gardening is, as you know, a competitive pastime and with winter our garden is almost bare and our neighbourhood playing field is levelled.

Of course, if you have, as I do, a championship gardener in your street, don’t bother competing with her. Iris at No. 10 will soon have her blood-red camellia bowing over her pale-pink Daphne bowing over her white winter rose. Polyanthus in primary colours will gaily arrive and somehow – I suspect her of bringing them on indoors and transplanting them under cover of night – paperwhite daffodils will brighten the dark of winter several weeks before this is climatically possible. You’ll ask her, “How do you do it, Iris?” and she’ll tell you some rot about using coffee grounds for the nitrogen. You are just not in her league.

There is no good reason for a titleholder to give an amateur tips. If Iris offered those secrets that keep her garden gorgeous even in the cold, they’d make as much sense to me as wisdom whispered by a feminist philosopher to the cast of the Footy Show. However, last week she did give some general good advice for winter gardening, which I will pass on only if you promise not to follow it while holding secateurs or any tool sharper than your watering can: brandy.

If you do drink, a small volume of brandy, such as my grandma might have called “medicinal”, is not a dreadful idea in the winter garden. It warms you. It increases your hostility towards weeds. It is what has been missing from my horticultural calendar. In summer, I will, like so many Australian gardeners, drink a beer as I weed, water or fertilise. Iris has shown me that there is no good reason not to also buoy your movement with a little nip in June. 

Whatever reasonable thing you might do or drink to get yourself out among the pots or the beds, do it. To neglect the garden is easy, but to tend it is its own peculiar reward. Enthusiasm, which can begin to border on madness as the season passes, is the gardener’s greatest aid, and never more valuable than it will be in winter.

When the UV is low, and the weeds are slow-growing and the grubs and the bugs have taken leave, the garden is more yours than it will ever be. I remind myself of this as I look to a yard deserted for a season by everyone but the rats and I prepare for a mini Neolithic Revolution. No more yelling at the heads on CNN for their myopic commentary. No more checking my social media feeds for evidence of others’ adultery. I am out to modify nature, and to let nature modify me.

If this is your first cold season in the garden, or if this marks your return after some years of yelling at the news channel throughout winter, you must remember to first improve your soil. You can control the chaos of spring by conditioning soil, or your growing medium in pots, now.

If your garden unfolds chiefly in containers, this is simple. You use potting mix, which can be delivered to your home if you prefer, and then you fertilise it per the instructions on the plant label. You do not use garden dirt in pots – well, not unless you are an eager hobbyist with outbuildings to build your soil mix. If you are improving beds, it is, in my experience, generally better to use organic materials than chemical boosters. By means of chook poo or compost, both of which can be dumped in your driveway for a fee, you not only increase the nutrients in the soil – and many plants have the greedy habit of sucking these up – but you improve its physical properties or tilth. A nice aerated loamy soil will form a friable sphere when you grab a fist of it, while soil that is too clayey will curl up into a mean little ball, and soil that is too sandy will simply fall apart in your hand.

I do understand that this counsel is, however necessary, tedious. But I did recommend a brandy, a little of which makes everything, including CNN and tilth, more fascinating.

The novice or reawakened gardener must not fail to plant peas this season. They are pretty to look at and near impossible to kill, which is why my father likes to call his personal legume seed bank “Angelina Jol-Pea”. Whether sugar snap, snow pea or the common and delicious Greenfeast, these flowering plants demand very little, and, along with the fragrant ornamentals sweet pea and Russell lupin, as well as broad beans, manage the magic of taking nitrogen from the air and delivering it to the soil. Leave the pea seeds between two sheets of wet paper towel and wait for the embryonic root to shoot before planting them at a depth of three times their own height, then about 10 centimetres apart. They do tend to like a little support, but smaller varieties such as Greenfeast will remain productive without it. I have not myself tried growing this herald of spring in a container, but I understand that it can be done so long as you’re prepared to water her often, and perhaps choose a variety less statuesque than Angelina.

Now is a good time in most zones to plant out cabbage seedlings, leeks, garlic and other alliums, and I hold out hope that my cauliflower shoots will survive the season. I have considered the purchase of row covers, a garden fabric that can protect plants from winds and frosts while still admitting light. However, I am currently too ashamed after a full season of garden delinquency to buy anything at all from my local nursery – Priya the horticulturist always asks such exacting questions.

You in Brisbane can currently throw a range of veg into your ground, including carrots and celery. Sydneysiders who know the little microclimate tendencies of their gardens may find they can do the same with some success. Canberrans can at least feel warm that theirs is a climate kind to the Brussels sprout, which should now be planted out in seedling form. And all of you: prune your roses. Hit them with a fertiliser a few weeks later.

Unless it is the case that I have drained an entire flask of brandy, stark winter maintenance is not enough to sustain me through the season. I can’t just content myself with carving up the fruit trees and waiting for plants to grow; I prefer to be beckoned to the garden by at least a beautiful few of them. There are flower seeds to sow now, but I must wait for months for the cornflower and more than a year for the foxglove to bloom. To speed up that promise of the garden, you can still plant late spring bulbs, including the Dutch iris, damn what it says on the packet. For an immediate boost, there is the pansy or the primula, which I will not be enjoying, due to my rational fear that Priya will stare into my eyes and know in an instant that mine is currently a rat garden.

Be careful of the hellebore, or winter rose, a fetching and otherworldly perennial evergreen. I have successfully managed to kill seven of these waxy little shade-loving bushes over just a few summers, but I keep buying them anyway as they are intriguing and chic and can be purchased by mail.

Your winter garden may not yet be a sight for sore eyes. But, with a little structured obsession, your spring show could provide some optical relief. And even if this fails to soothe your gaze, Iris’s brandy will soothe your nerves. At its minimum, the winter garden provides a good rationale for midday spirits.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2017 as "Manna winter".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.