FOR most of us, herbaceous plants are the backbone of our flower gardens and, although they ask very little from us in the way of attention, they will do all the better for a little care at this time of year.

The sign of a true herbaceous plant is growth above ground will die down completely during the winter months, even though the root remains alive and active ready to throw up non-woody new growth the following spring. By doing this, in its natural habitat, the plant was able to protect itself from the seasons, which generally meant sunshine and warmth in the summers and cold during the winters.

As the summer comes to an end, the year's growth dies down, acting as protection against the cold and, at the same time, rotting down and providing nourishment. Underground, the root becomes dormant until the cold of winter has passed when it will come back to life and get on with its purpose of growing.

The coming summer is likely to be short and the plant has to put an enormous amount of vigour into flowering and setting seed before next autumn. Just think of the dramatic change in herbaceous plants in the short weeks from the beginning of April to the end of June.

One of the most satisfactory things about herbaceous plants is the enthusiasm with which they increase in size over the years but, within the confines of a small garden, they will need splitting every few years and now is the best time to do this. Start by cutting off the dying top from the plant and carefully dig out the roots.

Sit the exposed plant on a fairly level piece of ground you can then can either stick in two forks, back to back, through the middle and gently, but firmly, lever them apart or, you can cut through the roots into two or three equal parts with a sharp spade. Replant the newly formed smaller sections, sprinkling a handful of bonemeal on the planting site.

Now is a good time for repositioning any plants not in the right place. First, prepare the new site by digging a generous hole and sprinkling with bonemeal, then carefully dig up the plant, keeping as much soil as possible on the rootball

Have a look for any weeds and carefully pull them out. The plant should re-establish quickly and not come to any harm.

A decision gardeners have to make at this time of year is whether or not to cut back the previous season's growth. I leave as much foliage as possible on the plants until the following spring. This isn't just a whim, as I feel the protection provided by dying vegetation outweighs other considerations.

As a bonus, by not cutting back now, any seedheads will provide winter feed for the birds and the effect of frost and snow on the skeletons of plant leaves is a stunning sight.

On the other hand, the borders can look decidedly scruffy until the following spring and, if you do the work now, it will be one job less next year when there is so much else to do.

If, having weighed up the pros and cons, you do decide to get on and start cutting back now, choose a dry and mild day. First of all, cut off the top growth and throw it on the compost heap. Then begins the daunting task of weeding the border thoroughly. Once you have removed every trace of weeds, gently fork round the plants and treat the whole area to a generous layer of organic mulch, taking care to keep clear of the crowns, as too much moisture at this time of year can lead to rotting.

Unfortunately, perennial weeds such as bindweed and ground elder have a way of infiltrating our gardens and no-one escapes entirely unscathed so, if you have a heavily infested area, now is a good time to tackle it

It's a laborious and painstaking job but, as these weeds spread from the smallest section of root, it pays in the long run to be thorough.

First of all, remove all the plants from the section you are working on and lay them carefully in boxes. Dig out the entire border with a fork picking out every scrap of root.

Remember, even the tiniest portion has the ability to regenerate next spring.