For the first time I can remember I feel caught up with the garden To Do list. While I can always find jobs if I want to get fresh air and exercise—spreading compost, pruning, harvesting leeks – It feels optional. This is no doubt due to having had more time in the garden combined with the lovely weather this past year. My next big(ish) job will be weather dependent, and I am waiting for a still day which is comfortably above freezing for cleaning the glasshouse, which I try to do properly once a year.

To encourage wildlife in the garden it is helpful not to keep it too tidy. At this time of year, on a nice day, it is tempting to clean out sheds, weed beds, and remove leaves from corners, and under shrubs and hedges. However, tidying up has both pros and cons associated, and it is worth weighing them up before acting at this time. The balance will tip depending on the time of year.
Wildlife such as garden-friendly beasties ie many butterflies, moths, beetles, hedgehogs, toads, and others tend to hibernate in dry and sheltered places over the winter, and a big pile of leaves can be just the ideal spot for them. Bats and butterflies tend to seek out dry sheds while others look for permanently damp and frost-free spots. Of course, there will also be some creatures that we consider less desirable and you might feel it is time to be rid of them. If that is the case, please consider the least harmful ways of doing this and try to avoid the use of chemicals, many of which are indiscriminate and will kill both the undesirables but may also kill off the ‘good ones’-- those that are predators (the hunters) of those you are targeting. If we kill the predators, who eat the pests, we put ourselves into a rut of repeatedly having to use chemicals, which is bad for biodiversity and often for the soil.

Aphids (greenfly) are a nuisance, and I suspect that however good the control of aphids on a given year they will be there ready and willing the next year. They suck the sap of plants which weakens them and can spread disease. They multiply in numbers hard to imagine (not sure who does the counting but you read figures of one aphid having offspring every week who have offspring every week etc and by the end of the season if they all survive one aphid results in billions of aphids) – so what chance do we have as gardeners?
One idea is to work to encourage the predators, so give them shelter (leave some piles of leaves and old flower stalks), water and food. Peanut feeders attract blue tits and many small birds, who need meat in the form of insects and caterpillars in the spring and summer when they are feeding young. The blue tits also help clear the aphids, as do hoverflies and wasps, the latter I tolerate to an extent (and vica versa), we work around each other.

Back to cleaning for a moment, and I am going to widen this to garden hygiene. There are places where hygiene is essential, for example where you start your young plants which have soft and sappy growth (yummy) in cold frames or glasshouses. This growth is high in nutrients and if aphids or slugs/snails are around they will want to be in on the action. Our reaction needs to be swift, and products such as soft soap spray which gums up aphids rather than poisoning them and anyone else in sprayer range. Even less harmful to the environment is dunking the little plants into semi-warm water to wash the aphids off. Slug pellets containing ferric phosphate which do not kill song thrushes like the ones containing now-banned metaldehyde can save the day. There are various non-chemical methods too such as searching out the snails or slugs and killing them. It isn’t as hard work as it sounds if caught early, as one or two slugs can do a lot of damage.

A fungus that seems to spread quickly if not dealt with is grey mould, or botrytis (pictured). It is mostly a problem under glass, as it appreciates a little extra warmth in the winter—but it isn’t fussy. The punters tell us it likes cool and damp, warm and damp, or just damp. It thrives indoors where there are fallen leaves, rotting foliage and damaged stems, so this kind of tidying up before you have botrytis is a good idea. It includes clearing beds and sweeping paths especially inside the glasshouse, and an annual clean of the glass, the framework and the shelving. I prefer to do this on a warmish day before I sow seeds because I find it easier to move any overwintering plants in pots outside. Inevitably I get water down my sleeve, so if the sun is shining it is easier! The fun bit is moving the plants back in, checking them for aphids and slugs at the base of the pot, removing moss, refreshing any labels that are fading, and tickling up the compost if it has got too wet or compacted. They look so nice afterwards it is a fine reward. I tend to avoid repotting just yet as it encourages growth too early, which may get frosted (and then attract botrytis). Good aeration helps too.

Out of doors there is no harm in cutting off stems of shrubs if you see signs of the disease coral spot (which does what it says on the tin – reddish spots) or broken branches, cut these back to a clean cut which heals up more quickly.

Trends and customs change over time. We are increasingly aware of how crucial our gardens -- all sizes -- are to wildlife and how our gardening methods impact them. By worrying more about the predators than the neighbours and finding a good balance between tidiness and managed neglect, we may encourage others to change. Whether they do or not, you will make a valuable contribution to biodiversity.