Autumn Gardening Tasks

It’s come round to the time of year when the lawn mower morphs from a tool for cutting grass, into a vacuum cleaner for fallen leaves.

Autumn seems to have pounced on us this year. I can trace it back to a day about a week and a half ago, when the air took on a chill, and the heavy dew on the grass lasted the whole day. The trees seemed to start turning in an instant response, with leaves colouring up and beginning to fall.

By then, the asters were barely into bud, but the sudden change seemed to kick them into action, and they’re now fully out and looking good. Asters are pretty much the last summer perennials to flower. When everything else is going over, their leaves are fresh and vital, their intricate daisy flowers in purples, blues, pinks and white, are pristine and vibrant – oases of shining beauty among a sea of decay. If you want to extend your garden’s flowering season into the autumn, you can’t do better than to plant some asters.(1)

Aster novi-belgii ‘Audrey’ – for the bad news, see note (1)

We typically think of autumn as a time of tidying and clearing up – clearing leaves, cutting back dead foliage and flower stems on perennials, pulling up spent bedding plants, taking out tomatoes and cleaning the greenhouse. But it’s also a busy time for more creative tasks. Now is the time to plant spring flowering bulbs, in pots and in the ground. Daffodils need to be planted as soon as possible, but most tulips can wait until November – in fact it’s best not to put them in the open ground until then, particularly if you have heavy soil. It’s a good idea to cover bulbs with wire mesh to stop rodents digging them up (easier to do with pots than for those planted directly into the ground).

Now is a good time to divide many perennials, although some people prefer to wait until the spring to do this, as there’s a danger that the reset plants could be killed by the cold weather. On the other hand, doing it now gives them a chance to establish a good root system, so they’re ready to get growing in the spring. And it’s easier to see what you’re dividing at this time of year, because by the end of the winter, perennials often don’t have much showing above ground.
Aster novi-belgii ‘Climax’ – again, see note (1)

And of course, autumn is a great time to plant roses, as well as most other shrubs, and trees. The soil is still warm (even if the weather isn’t) and reliably moist, giving them a chance to develop their root system so that, as for the perennials, they’re ready to start into growth the following spring. And woody plants can be bought bare-rooted, which is much cheaper than buying potted specimens – particularly relevant if you have a lot of plants to put in (say, for a deciduous hedge).

When it comes to the autumn clearing up, there are decisions to be made. Ideally, fallen leaves can be collected up and made into leaf mould. If you’ve got a lot of leaves, you can make a leaf mould bin by wrapping wire mesh around four wooden posts set out in a square. If you don’t have enough leaves for this, or anywhere to put it, you can fill a black plastic bag with leaves, tie it up, put a few holes in it with a garden fork, and leave it somewhere out of sight. Either way, you should have leaf mould by this time next year.

However, for some plants that are diseased, such as roses with black spot, apples with scab ,or quince with leaf blight, experts suggest collecting the leaves and burning them. The theory is that if you compost them, the spores of the disease may survive and re-infect the plant the following year. The problem comes where your leaves have blown about and intermingled – you can hardly sort them one by one!

The other decision is whether or not to cut back the dead foliage of perennials. Some people can’t bear to see them making the garden look untidy over the winter. Others think that they can look attractive, particularly when the frost is on them, or when they’re backlit by the winter sun. And they do provide homes for insect wildlife to spend the winter. Personally, I tend to wait until the spring to cut back the dead growth.
Canna Neubert, taken only a few days ago – who said the summer was over

(1) In what appears to be an ongoing scheme to make our lives difficult, botanists have recently re-classified some (but not all) asters, and given them the new name ‘Symphyotrichum’. Maybe they’re jealous of our ability to speak horticultural latin. Or perhaps they’re just trying to justify their own existence. It seems to be the later flowering novi-belgii group that have been renamed.


Words and pictures copyright Graham Wright 2017

If Trees Could Talk…

We’re not long into September, and I’d like to think it’s still summer, if only just. But it seems that many of the trees think otherwise. I can’t help feeling a little antagonistic towards them. It’s as if they’re trying to deprive me of what little summer is left; as if they somehow know there isn’t any more good weather to come, so they might as well get on with the autumn business of dropping their leaves. I have an instinctive sense that trees are wise, but in this case it may be less about being in touch with the rhythm of the seasons, and more about giving up regardless. If trees could talk, they’d be saying ‘we’ve had enough!’

My Quince Tree (Cydonia oblonga ‘Vranja’) has suffered a lot this year. In spring, its freshly emerged leaves were ripped to shreds by strong winds. Likewise its second growth. It’s lived through prolonged drought, excessive rain, vastly fluctuating temperatures, and now a long period of dull, humid weather. And now it’s losing its leaves at an alarming rate. Continue reading

Hedge Cutting Frenzy

The hedge cutting season is upon us. At this time of year you can swing your blades into the largest, most unruly hedge in the neighbourhood, without too much fear of disturbing nesting birds. The only problem is how to fit all that extra work into a busy gardening schedule. And with all the rain we’ve had recently, it’s not as if the grass has slowed down.
Hedge of variegated privet (Ligustrum) undergoing trimming. I find laying down plastic sheets makes clearing up easier.

In the past few weeks I’ve cut quite a few hedges. Some are more satisfying to trim than others. The laurels – common and Portuguese – tend not to look so good after cutting, as the edges of the cut leaves turn brown. They look better once they’ve grown out a bit. You can at least cut into the older wood to renovate a hedge that’s outgrown its allotted space, or grown into an undesirable shape. They may look bare for a while, but they will throw out new shoots, and look better for it. Usually. Though you can’t always be sure, particularly as there are some nasty diseases affecting laurel at the moment. Cut back beyond the layer of green growth on the outside of most conifer hedges, and they won’t grow back. One small slip with the hedge trimmer, and you’re left with a hole that can only be covered by the plant world equivalent of a comb over! Continue reading

Attack of the Killer Slugs

I’ve read that we shouldn’t be too quick to rid ourselves of all of the slugs in our gardens, because certain species predate other slugs. I’ve never really been convinced of this. Anyone who regularly goes out into their garden at night to search for (and eradicate) these slimy creatures will know that slugs will eat pretty much anything, from carrion to cat faeces. Kill a slug one night and you can almost guarantee to find three more feasting on it’s carcass the next. So while I have often seen slugs eating other slugs, I didn’t consider that to be proof of predation. Continue reading

Do you want to borrow my hedge cutter?

‘Do you want to borrow my hedge cutter?’ he said. A generous offer, you might think.

One of my customers lives on a nice quiet cul-de-sac, with a rear garden that unfortunately backs onto the main road. I’d been trimming a large Pyracantha and, unable to reach all of it, had picked up my loppers, step-up, and a green waste bag, and walked the short distance round the corner to get the rest of it from the other side of the fence. I’d just about finished when a white van bumped up the kerb and came to a stop right by me. The head of a young man poked out of the window and spoke the offending words. Maybe it was the Barry bad boy accent, but I didn’t catch what he’d said immediately. And when it registered, it took me a while to assimilate the offer. I didn’t need a hedge cutter, and if I had, I would have used mine, which was in my van. I simply replied, as politely as could be expected under the circumstances, ‘No thank you’.

Undeterred, he continued, ‘Or I could do it for you’, giving away the true nature of his offer. ‘Only, I do this for a living, see’ he added, condescendingly (that’s when someone talks down to you). I realised that he meant gardening, rather than poking his nose into things he didn’t understand (though I suspect that if such a career path existed, he would be rather better suited to it).
Continue reading

To Mulch, or not to Mulch?

When I first started as a gardener, seven years ago, I went to a machinery shop for advice on what equipment to buy. A lawnmower is not a lawnmower. There are all sorts of variations, in size, weight and function (and even power source). A rear roller is best, as it can help to level out the lawn. It can also help prevent the mower slipping over the edge and scalping the grass. But it’s not so good if you’re likely to be cutting grass in less than ideal conditions – when it’s wet, or when the grass is long, for instance. Even more so with cylinder mowers, which can make a great job of a lawn that’s level, dry and not too long, but which need to be kept sharp, and are useless in the wet.

Say hello to Mr Sneezy

So I went for the most versatile, utilitarian option – a four-wheeled rotary mower.  Continue reading

Celandine, Celandine; surely not a friend of mine…

Is it my imagination, or is the Celandine particularly rampant this year?
This is a very difficult weed to deal with, mainly because of the small tubers that form under the soil at the base, and that tend to break off and lose themselves in the soil when you dig up the plants.

You can see these in the picture to the right. The RHS refers to these tubers as ‘tubercles’, which sounds a bit like a disease. And I can tell you that, faced with a patch of ground that’s covered in Celandine, it feels a bit like a disease too! You can never dig all of them out without leaving some of the tubercles behind, and if you’re not careful, by digging, you can turn a small colony into an infestation.

Mulching may well be the best organic approach to control. The RHS recommends a 10cm layer of organic material, but warns that this may not fully eradicate them. Membrane, with organic material over the top might be more effective. Although I know of at least one garden that has been mulched with heavy plastic, with gravel over the top (not my doing) where the celandine is pushing up forcibly around the edges, and at the base of the roses that were planted through the plastic.

If you’re happy to poison your soil, you could always douse the effected areas with glyphosate every spring.

The RHS encyclopaedia says Celandine is ‘good for a wild garden’. I must admit I’m a bit prejudiced against that because, with a few notable exceptions (such as Daffodils), yellow isn’t my favourite colour in the garden. But perhaps we shouldn’t get too worked up about this little plant. It’s easy to panic when you see a carpet of the stuff where you’d intended to have cultivated plants. But Celandine provides good ground cover, colour (albeit yellow) at a time when that can be in short supply, and by early summer it’s died back so as you’d never know it had been there. Maybe the easiest option is to learn to love it!