CAPTIVATING photographs in books and magazines help promote the idea that leaving herbaceous plants to die down naturally is best - but take it with a generous pinch of salt.
The illustrations are created when white frosts have made everything sparkle, or when a sunny winter's day shines briefly on disintegrating lumps of ornamental grass.
And bear in mind also that most are photographed as dawn breaks or craftily ‘tweaked’ by computer applications.
Whether or which, the ‘perfection’ lasts no longer than a summer rainbow.
Where I garden, hoar frost is something of a rarity, as elsewhere in the country, and I must persist and suffer through miserable dark days, persistent dampness, and ferocious winds.
All contribute to a drab disorder.
On such days (and there are many) even the nearby church and its associated limestone-faced outbuildings look doleful, dismal and forlorn.
Under such conditions there is nothing pretty about a border of collapsing phlox, ragged Jerusalem sage, or crumbling Miscanthus.
A clean-up of these in mid-January may now be necessary so my recommendation is to tackle these as soon as possible.
An exception however could be made with the ornamental grass sold as Stipa gigantea.
This is an emphatic plant, good in company but best in isolation where you can appreciate its graceful movement and buff-coloured tall stems which arch over with pale golden flowers into late February (see illustration).
We do not want too much, of course, so a pair of plants will suffice but they will need to be very carefully placed.
Personally, I like to see them displayed for a special effect such as at the top of steps, at the turn of a border, or on a steep embankment, where one must look upwards into the plants rather than down.
Leave this for another month or so.
This year, because the weather has generally remained unseasonably mild (at time of writing the cold north wind has once again emerged from its lair and hard night frosts are forecast) and many grass varieties have started to send up their new season growths.
So, cut back old fronds now, to just above the new growth using sharp secateurs.
Many of the old stems will probably be hard and woody so the debris should be placed to one side so that overwintering ladybirds and other flying insects (hiding inside) do not come to harm.