Why the RHS is wrong about wasps…

The RHS is sticking to it’s story that wasps are beneficial insects…

From my own observations I would say that any positive contribution to the garden (and possibly the wider environment too) is outweighed by the harm they do. Firstly, they eat beneficial animals as well as pests. What’s more, they will kill anything that gets in their way. I’ve witnessed the mass murder of hoverflies and bees, with deaths in the hundreds, apparently because the wasps won’t tolerate competition for nectar from the plants they visit.

My own observation suggests wasps are not significant pollinators – more likely to eat flowers than to pollinate them (particularly roses). They were certainly nowhere to be seen when my fruit trees were in blossom, so did nothing to help generate the copious amounts of apples, pears, plums and damsons that formed. But now, before much of the fruit is even close to ripening, they’re systematically destroying the harvest…

The RHS says ‘damage to plants is limited, and mainly occurs in late summer…’ Limited’? They should see the state of my apples! And it’s not late summer yet. Maybe they’re out earlier because of the warm, dry weather in June (remember that?)

The same happened last year. I’ve taken action, through the organic method of using traps – glass jars with a piece of paper over the top, with a wasp-sized hole in it. The idea is the wasps go into the jar to get to the treat inside, and end up drowning in it…

The RHS suggested using a mixture of jam and water, and I’ve found this works well. The first jar caught perhaps fifty wasps. I tried beer, but while it caught some wasps, it was more attractive to flies and moths. For the latest refill, I’ve used a mixture of beer and jam (the wasp version of alco-pop?) As you can see, I’ve used foil, rather than paper, as it’s waterproof. There’s some question as to whether these traps actually attract more wasps, but I felt I had to try something, or there won’t be any apples left.

It wouldn’t be so bad if they chose one apple at a time, but of course, they wouldn’t dream of being so considerate. Instead, they burrow into numerous apples at a time which, in no time, start to go rotten before the wasps have made more than a small hole. At which point, they move on to fresh apples. So you can see, the entire crop is at risk.

‘Expert’ opinion generally seems to be that wasps will only sting if threatened. The trouble is, they seem to have a very low threat perception threshold. Get too close when they’re in the act of stealing your food (whether from your plate, the kitchen, or the orchard), and you’re seen as a threat.

Wasps are aggressive, irritable creatures, with a vindictive streak. Last year we were inundated with nests. The patio at the end of the garden was a no go area. We took our lives in our hands when we took garden or food waste to the compost. And even if we were lucky enough to get in or out of the front door without being stung, opening the door would let another half-a-dozen or so into the house. Eventually we succumbed, and called in the council pest controller.

I will just say (and I probably should have said it earlier), that not all wasps are the same. It’s the so-called ‘social’ wasps – Vespula species (otherwise known as ‘yellow jackets’) – that are the troublemakers. There are many species of solitary wasps which are not so troublesome. You wouldn’t want to be their prey mind. Many of them inject their eggs into the prey (often a caterpillar). The eggs hatch out, and the wasp larvae slowly eat the host from the inside out. While it’s still alive! That said, they don’t, as far as I’m aware, cause damage to plants, or harass us humans. Their pest control activities make them useful garden predators. Although many will eat spiders, which are very much a gardener’s friend. But then, no-one’s perfect…

text & images © graham wright 2023

Plant Mis-selling

In January, I bought two packs of Aconitum napellus ‘Album’ from a well known on-line plant nursery. There were three bare-rooted plants in each pack. They were for our green and white themed, shady border near to the house (‘Album’ being botanical Latin for white). Aconitum (or, Monkshood) are generally blue, but ‘Album’ is the white form.

As they were small, I potted them up and grew them on (initially in the greenhouse), planting them out once the frosts had stopped. They grew well, and began to form flower spikes. But it became clear fairly on they weren’t going to be white. The flowers are fully out now…

Oh dear! I’ve contacted the supplier, who were very good, and are processing a full refund, as they don’t have any replacements they can give me. And I can use these blue Aconitums elsewhere in the garden. So now I just need to source some white ones from somewhere. That, or find an alternative (white foxgloves could be an option).

Below is the border in early May, with the white ‘Purissima’ tulips and ‘Thalia’ daffodils still in flower. Okay, I know there are some blue flowers, which doesn’t fit the colour scheme, but rules are made to be broken! The flowers are pale blue, but the leaves of the Brunnera at least are white…

The planting is only just establishing. Two Pyracantha’s, a Viburnum x burkwoodii, and a Chimonanthus (yellow flowers, but in winter, when little else is out) will eventually hide the fence. Along the front edge, on the house side of the semi-raised pond, is a low hedge of Sarcococca, grown from cuttings taken from a single plant. The small white flowers are produced in the winter, and are very fragrant (which is why I put them by the house).

As you can see, the paths have been set out, but need to be levelled and paved. To save money, I’m doing the landscaping work myself, little by little when I can find the time which, at the moment, isn’t often. It’s a work in progress.

The perennial planting includes four ferns – Polystichum polyblepharum.

I’ve been disappointed how much they’ve suffered. The new croziers have been wiped out twice so far this year – once by the cold, and once by the hot sunny weather we had early on (the bed is not as shaded as it will be once the wall shrubs have established).

There six Bergenia ‘Bressingham White’, which flowered well (with, as you would expect, white flowers).

There are two Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’. At the moment they’re all foliage – the white flowers will appear later on. This is another plant which didn’t turn out as I expected, thanks to nursery mis-labelling.

Three Actaea (A. simplex ‘Brunette’) have lovely dark foliage that will stand out against the green shades of the other plants, and fragrant white flower spikes (which are quite late to flower).

Brunnera ‘Alchemy Silver’ has large, striking, silvery heart-shaped leaves. The flowers are pale blue, small, and similar to forget-me-nots. The blue doesn’t fit in with the white theme, but they appear in early spring, so I think that can be forgiven.

The planting looks sparse now, but in time it should expand and mesh together. I chose plants that flower at different times so that there will be flowers for most of the year. Contrasting colours, textures and leaf shapes make for a bed full of interest.

text & images © graham wright 2023

Trouble with Rabbits…

The gardening elite are increasingly stressing the importance of making our gardens accessible to, and beneficial for, wildlife. It’s a trend I’m pleased to support, because for too long us humans have been working against nature, and to the detriment of the environment (and ultimately, against our own welfare). With so much of the wider landscape being so inhospitable to indigenous creatures, our domestic gardens can potentially make up a vital network of nature reserves.

We should aim to create a balance in our gardens; a good mix of wildlife so that populations of pests are kept in check – we accept limited damage to our plants, in return for a diverse ecosystem, and a healthier environment.

All well and good, but for some wildlife, it’s not that simple. Some of the larger animals are really not compatible with our ideas of what makes a garden. Badgers can make an awful mess of a lawn. Deer will eat almost anything; including tree bark. And so will rabbits.

This is the first year we’ve had significant problems with rabbits, which is surprising considering we have farmland on three sides. Maybe it’s something to do with the regular sound of gunshots that ring out across the fields. That, or the foxes. Or the buzzards. This year though, I’ve noticed more rabbits down the lane. When I saw an adult rabbit on the lawn, I set about putting up fencing to keep them out. There were already various sizes of wire mesh fence around the boundary, in among the mixed field hedges. I added chicken wire, burying it as deep as I could to stop the bunnies from digging under. This seemed to work. Until one day I looked out and there were two baby rabbits! Here’s a shot from the 14th April, with one of the babies munching its way through self-seeded honesty…

Incredibly cute, but very destructive! I blocked up numerous points where they might be getting in. But nothing worked. And when I went out to chase them away, they would disappear, as if into thin air. And then, one day, I watched as one of them ran through my chicken wire fence as if it wasn’t there. It turns out a 50mm mesh isn’t fine enough!

I’ve been intermittently bolstering our defences, each time hopeful that I’ve finally done enough to keep them out… quickly to discover I’ve been unsuccessful. There’s just one, very persistent rabbit now. How ever much I try chasing him away, he never gets the message. Someone suggested buying an air rifle, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that; just look at him…

And yet, as the damage is mounting (raspberry canes, dogwood, the lower shoots and branches of the akebia (chocolate vine), sweet peas…) my inner Elmer Thud is straining to get out!

The rabbit is in the garden so much of the time (and active during the day – I thought they were largely nocturnal?) I’m wondering if there isn’t any point in sealing the garden – he’d be quite happy to live there permanently. There’s lot’s of cover to protect him from the buzzards, and no danger of been shot by the nasty farmer.

And if I am able to find where he’s getting in, when I seal it, how can I be sure he’s out, rather than in, the garden? I’ve had to put tree guards around the trunks of all of the trees. If the rabbit just ate the grass, he’d be welcome to share the garden.

I’m really not sure what to do next. Do I take away all the fences so that he can at least get out easily? Or will he just invite his friends round to join the party? Should I just accept that I’ll need to move towards plants that are largely rabbit proof?

If anyone has any ideas, I’d be very grateful…

text & images © graham wright 2023

Early flowers

The weather may still feel cold to me but, encouraged by the occasional day of sunshine, many of the plants are breaking into growth and into bloom. In the mini orchard, the plum tree is first off the mark, and full of blossom, which bodes well for a better crop than last year’s three plums (and one of those was rotten!)

The damson isn’t very far behind (so perhaps we’ll get some damsons this year), and the buds are about to burst on both of the apples, and both of the pears. It could be a good year for blossom.

In this exposed, rural location in North Shropshire, Pieris are a martyr to late frosts. But despite the cold winter, during which they sustained some damage, in terms of the new growth, it’s so far, so good…

The dainty white flowers are reminiscent of lily-of-the-valley, and the new shoots range from pink to bright red (and then brown, if caught by the frost). Here’s a random daffodil peeping through the evergreen canopy…

We’re well furnished for narcissus, of many varieties. Some precede our time. Others, like this clump of N. ‘Thalia’, were planted by us; spending their first year displayed in pots, and then being planted out into the beds to naturalise…

This Viburnum x burkwoodii is ahead of most shrubs, but then it is classed as semi-evergreen, which means it hangs on to some or all of its leaves, depending on how harsh the winter is. The new leaves are a lovely fresh, vibrant green. The flower clusters are pretty, but their main attribute (which I’m sorry I can’t share with you) is the beautiful scent they produce…

I’ve never been a fan of Skimmia, perhaps because so often when you see them in gardens they’re leggy and sparse, with yellowing leaves. But I have to admit this specimen, moved from the centre of the garden into our little woodland, is looking good…

Another plant I’ve taken a long time to come around to is Bergenia (elephants Ears). You need to regularly cut off the dead and dying leaves, or they look scrappy. You’ll often find them harbouring large colonies of snails (curiously though, these don’t seem to adversely affect the plants). And I’m not such a fan of the magenta-flowered varieties. But they are one of the few truly evergreen perennials. They’re one of the best ground cover plants too, doing a great job in suppressing weeds. The large, fleshy leaves are actually quite attractive – almost tropical. They’re evergreen (as previously stated) and yet the leaves also show autumn tints. And the flowers arrive at a time when few other perennials are in bloom.

This is one of the few white-flowered varieties, B. ‘Bressingham White’ (the clue’s in the name!) Seen from our kitchen window, I have to admit these are the perfect, pretty spring flowers.

Of all the perennials, these Ligularia (the evocatively named L. dentata ‘Midnight Lady’) are well advanced…

They like lots of moisture, so should be at home in the bog garden by the pond. I extended the pond liner into this area, punctured it with a fork, put a layer of slate chippings over it, and then put the topsoil back in. Even this wasn’t enough last summer, in 36 degrees and prolonged drought. Let’s hope for a better growing season this year (ideally nice and warm, but without the drought and extreme temperatures). I plan to tidy them up and cut out last years flowering spikes this weekend.

Naturalised tulips are beginning to bloom now too. This is ‘Purissima’…

I don’t much like the colour of these primulas, but they were in the garden already, and I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away…

We do have a few of the native yellow ones too. The rabbits got in and ate all the flowers, but so far my efforts to bolster the fencing have kept them out, and the primulas have pushed out new blooms.

One downside of rabbit-proof fencing is that it also excludes hedgehogs from the garden, which is a great shame. I want to encourage endangered wildlife, including hedgehogs. But I’m not prepared to sit back and watch the garden I’m lovingly creating be wrecked by rabbits (however cute they may be – and believe me, the two baby rabbits we watched playing in our woodland were unbelievably cute).

The last thing I want to share with you is this amazing little alpine plant, which has been flowering pretty much right through the winter, with the help of some occasional dead-heading. I have to admit when it comes to alpines, there are big gaps in my knowledge, so I can’t tell you what it is. Just when you might have thought it was exhausted, it doubles its efforts. Its been joined, in a happy accident, by a little patch of aubretia (not sure where that came from!)…

text & images © graham wright 2023

Signs of spring

It’s now officially spring, and though you wouldn’t know it from the weather, new growth is breaking out across the garden, mostly in the form of spring bulbs. There are still some snowdrops around, but they’re fading fast. Various types of crocuses are out now (though the Crocus tomasinianus in the lawn have been and gone).

We’ve got various clumps of the small, early, tete-a-tete daffodils; most of which were in the garden before we arrived . Most have been relocated as we’ve been implementing the new design.

I rescued a number of dark-flowered hellebores from the back of overgrown beds, and reset them as under-planting to hydrangeas and a paperbark maple…

Elsewhere, this is what we refer to as our woodland – a small patch of ground in the shade of the house and the chicken enclosure, beneath an unusually aged lilac tree. It’s where we amalgamated many of the rhododendrons that were scattered around the garden when we arrived, along with a few pieris. Our soil is neutral rather than acidic; sandy, and not exactly humus-rich, so it’s perhaps rather surprising that ericaceous plants seem to do so well in this area.

One large section of the lilac died last year, and I suspect the rest of the plant won’t be far behind it. We dug out huge quantities of the ‘bootlaces’ (technically rhizamorphs) of honey fungus that flourished in this area, around a decaying tree stump, but inevitably we couldn’t get them all. We have the most common form of honey fungus (Armillaria gallica) which is very good at finishing off trees and shrubs that are weak, or coming to the end of their life. So I’ve planted a replacement in the space that has opened up: a Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Slender silhouette’. This is a columnar tree, so it gives height without taking up too much space. It has glossy lobed leaves which turn the most amazing colours in autumn. Some sources claim it’s resistant to honey fungus (although the RHS says it’s susceptible!)

Many of our new trees, including the fruit trees in the orchard (it’s an orchard if you’ve got five trees, and we’ve got six, even if they are small) are budding. This is a plum. Last year it produced only three plums. If the buds are anything to go by, it should be a better harvest this year…

The roses are shooting too. They are mostly young plants, but I’m hoping they really come into their own this year…

And this tree peony is well ahead of most woody plants in the garden…

The plants are ready for the growing season to start in earnest, and I can’t wait. All we need now is for the weather to get the message!

text & images © Graham Wright

Sansevieria cylindrica

This plant was given to us as an off-shoot of an office plant, by the contractor that looked after them (and was visiting to tidy them up and replace as necessary). It’s a curious cultivar of ‘Mother-in-law’s tongue’ (or, ‘unspecified parent-in-law’s tongue’, as I believe it’s now more politically correctly called), with dark green, mottled leaves that are roughly cylindrical. The leaves want to splay outward, taking up a lot of space – this is a plant with sharp elbows.

This specimen is in our conservatory, wedged between two window frames to keep it constrained. For some time now it’s been producing what, after an unpromising start, has turned into an impressive flower spike.

The individual, cream-coloured flower tubes have a faint, rather dry and fruity fragrance to them. Apparently the plant is known for being very easy to care for (some sites call it indestructible!) It will take full sun, or shade. In our conservatory it’s in sun all morning, so perhaps it’s this that provoked it to bloom.

This plant, along with some of our others, has suffered an infestation of fungus gnats (also known as sciarid flies). These little blighters are a menace. The tiny grubs live in the compost until they hatch out. Expert advice is that they do little harm, feeding on the microscopic fungi that lives among the compost. But who wants to have clouds of tiny flies in their house? Contrary to expert opinion, I know from first-hand experience they sometimes eat plant roots too – I once had a cactus collapse, and on further investigation discovered it was being consumed from the inside out by wriggling sciarid fly grubs!

Fungus gnats seem to love peat-free compost – presumably because it contains a lot of fungus. A thick layer of gravel on the surface can discourage them. Watering from below helps too, as they seem less likely to lay their eggs in dry compost. You used to be able to get systemic insecticide pins (definitely a tool of last resort), but even those don’t seem to be available now. These insects are ubiquitous outside in the UK, so as soon as you open a window you’re inviting them into your home.

Oh, the trials of growing house plants!

text & photos © graham wright 2023

Bodnant in winter

What was planned as an invigorating visit to Bodnant gardens in North Wales, to see glowing stems and frosted seed heads lit up by the low winter sun, turned out to be a rather grey, damp affair with icy rain. Never trust a weather forecast.

It started bright enough, but driving along the A55 – the coast road – we could see heavy cloud and obliterating showers banked up just out to sea. The cloud was beginning to move in as we parked, but the sun was still lighting up the snow-covered Snowdonia hills to the south.

A carpet of golden-yellow leaves beneath a Ginko biloba.

By the time we were through the turnstiles the rain was just starting. Luckily, Bodnant provide umbrellas – nice bright yellow ones that make it look as though the sun’s shining even when it isn’t. For a while, the rain was light, and intermittent, and the sun peeped out very briefly now and then.

Blue hydrangea blooms looking incongruous against the surface of a pond speckled with autumn leaves – I suspect these flowers came when the plant burst back into life after being cut back by the extraordinary heatwave.

Bodnant has a winter garden, full of plants that look good at this time of year. Evergreen Daphne bholua had some flowers, with more to come, though they were too frosted to release any of the scent for which this plant is famous. Colourful stems of Cornus (dogwood) ranged from pale green (C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’), through fiery orange-red C. sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ to dark red C. alba ‘Kesselringii’. There were ghostly white arcs of Rubus cockburnianus, plenty of berries and seed heads, and ethereal, structural remains of grasses from Molinia to Miscanthus to Calamagrostis. Beautifully textured and coloured trunks of deciduous trees included the deep red, burnished Prunus serrula, shining white Betula utilis ‘Jacquemontii’ (Himalayan birch), the coppery peeling bark of Acer griseum (paperbark maple), and, a Snakebark maple that was new to me; Acer x conspicuum ‘Phoenix’, with orange-red trunk and branches.

Opposite the main restaurant, Prunus serrula rise from a thicket of Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, the leaves of which are rather an insipid green during the growing season, but take on impressive autumn colours (and, as you can see, stay on the plants for a long time).

At Bodnant, there are plenty of evergreens to act as a backdrop to all those bright highlights. Having acid soil, the garden is well-furnished with rhododendrons and camellias, as well as more tender specimens such as Callistemon (bottlebrush) and arbutus unedos (strawberry tree). Pines, both small and large, work particularly well in the winter garden; providing a dense, finely textured background to stems, grasses, trunks and berries, and at Bodnant, they make good use of these.

A group of three Acer x conspicuum ‘Phoenix’ give a splash of colour among evergreens and pale stems. The spidery flowers of the Hamamelis (witch hazel) on the left are getting ready to bloom, and should be out soon.

The sun did come out weakly now and then, as you can see from the pictures, but I didn’t take many photos – I didn’t want the camera to get too wet, and I was counting on the weather clearing later on. But by the time we’d had lunch in the cafe by the garden centre, the rain had set in and it was as dark as dusk, so I never got that low winter sunlight I’d been hoping for. Never mind; there’s always next year!

Text & photos © graham wright 2022

November Gardening Jobs

Plant bare root trees and shrubs
Deciduous trees, and some shrubs, can be bought ‘bare-root’ during the dormant season. This is typically a cheaper way to buy plants, because unlike potted plants, which need a lot of care and attention by the nursery (regular potting-on, watering, etc.) these will have been grown out in the field, and are dug up and dispatched direct to the customer. Ornamental trees, fruit trees, fruit bushes (including raspberries) and roses are all supplied bare-root over the winter.
When they arrive, you should try to plant them as soon as you can. Soak the roots for an hour or so, and then get them planted. Don’t forget to buy stakes to support any trees you’ve bought. Although if you have very small saplings, they are best planted without stakes).

A selection of roses, delivered bare-rooted in the winter, ready to be soaked in water, and then planted

Move plants
This is, technically speaking, bad practice. In an ideal world, we would all place plants in exactly the right position. In reality, it’s easy to get the spacings wrong, or to find that combinations of colours and textures are not working as you’d hoped. I’m ashamed to admit this happens to me more frequently than I’d like. Now is a great time to move plants around, and although it seems like sacrilege to dig up a plant only to move it a few feet, it’s amazing just how much you can get away with (though it’s best to avoid moving trees and shrubs that are too established). Any perennials you dig up to move may be able to be split, and used to fill gaps elsewhere.

Make leaf mould
Continue collecting fallen leaves from paths and lawns and adding them to the leaf mould bin (if you’ve made one) or put them in bags (hessian bags are best, but you can use plastic bags – old compost bags, or bin bags – with holes punched into the sides and bottom with a garden fork). Leaves can be left on beds to rot down naturally – just make sure any small plants are not swamped.

Check tree ties
If you haven’t done it already, check the ties on any trees that are staked. There are bound to be storms blowing through at this time of year, so it pays to check the stakes are still sound, and the ties are firm, but not too tight.

A perennial task, but despite the cooler temperatures, weeds are taking advantage of the rain to sprout and grow fast. Hoeing is not so effective in damp conditions, so weeds will need to be pulled or dug out.

Move self-seeded plants
There are bound to be some hard frosts soon, but while the weather stays (relatively) mild, you can move self-seeded plants like foxgloves (Digitalis), love-in-a-mist (Nigella) and forget-me-nots (Myosotis) to where you want them.

Self-sown forget-me-nots

Clean the greenhouse
Haven’t you cleaned that greenhouse yet? You need to get it done in time to move in any tender plants before the weather gets too cold for them (okay, so I admit I may not get around to this job every year).

Store tender plants
As I’m writing this, we still haven’t had any significant frost, and the Dahlias, Cannas, Pelargoniums and the like are all still flowering. But the cold is coming soon. Dahlias are traditionally not brought into storage until the top growth has been blackened by frost. Pelargoniums should definitely be brought under glass before they are hit by frost. Traditionally, Dahlia tubers were stored in dry sand, or even ash from the fire. More recently, dry, spent compost is recommended – though there is the potential for introducing pests and diseases. The other day I saw some advice recommending using shredded paper. I’m going to try that this year, and put all those top secret documents to good use.

Plant some bulbs
It’s a good time to plant bulbs such as tulips and alliums, for next season, in pots and in the ground.

Tulipa ‘Ballerina’

Plant for winter interest
At this time of year the cold, the damp, the short days and the low light levels can get you down. To cheer yourself up, and if you have the room, why not stick two fingers up to the cost of living crisis and buy a plant that will give you some joy over the winter months? I’ve just bought a witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’), the branches of which are laden with buds ready to burst into lovely, fragrant, spidery orange flowers any time now.

Hamamelis x. intermedia ‘Jelena’

Pot Busters…

Canna lilies are beautiful, but a word of warning – watch your pots, because beneath the beauty, cannas have violent tendencies. They multiply by producing new shoots below ground, and this new growth expands with a pressure that plant pots can’t contain. Plastic pots get distorted…

This pot is actually quite old, and I don’t think it will last another season. You can see it’s beginning to split at the bottom. Getting this canna out is likely to be a challenge. It’s ceramic pots you really have to watch. This one first started to crack, and then split apart, and now all that remains is a pile of crocks…

Cannas will usually survive in the ground over winter, particularly if your soil, like mine, isn’t heavy (it helps to mulch them with compost, chipped bark or the like). But they tend to be slow into growth the next year. And a cold winter can kill them. So I prefer to store mine in the greenhouse. I take them out of the pots and pop them into old compost bags…

Don’t let them dry out completely over the winter. They can be potted up into fresh compost next spring, and moved outside when the risk of frost has gone. They make a good show in a pot, but make sure the pot is big enough so they don’t break out of it! They can also be planted directly into the ground, where it helps to improve the soil. In a pot, or in the ground, keep them fed and watered for the best results.

Canna ‘Wyoming’ – with large, dark leaves, and lush orange flowers, this is my favourite variety.

For a plant that is reported as tender, cannas are surprisingly indestructible. Every year I split them to make new plants, and end up with far too many. I tried recycling the extras on the compost heap, but they love the warmth in there, and soon start throwing up new flower spikes! Oh well; of all the problems you could have as a gardener, it doesn’t get better than that…

text & images © graham wright 2022

October Gardening Jobs

Plant new trees and shrubs
The dormant season – autumn and winter – has always been seen as a good time to plant trees and shrubs. But if the pattern of dry springs and summers experienced over recent years continues, the sooner you get plants in, the better. The soil is still warm, there’s plenty of moisture around, so plants put into the ground now will have a chance of establishing an effective root system before winter.

Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Slender Silhouette’ – planted a few days ago.

Divide perennials
Perennials that have finished flowering and have formed decent-sized clumps can be divided now. If the centre sections are woody and unproductive they can be cut out and discarded. Re-set the other pieces where you want them, water them in, and they should be able to establish before the winter.

Use Fallen leaves
Autumn leaves should be cleared from lawns and paths (and beds too, if you wish) and can be collected up and turned into leaf mould – either in a purpose made-bin (with wire mesh sides) or in bags (hessian bags are best, but you can use plastic – but punch lots of holes in the sides and bottom with a garden fork). You could leave them on the beds as a soil-improving mulch that will rot down naturally – just make sure any small plants are not swamped.

Lawn Repair
Hopefully most lawns will have turned green again by now, but this is traditionally a good time to do remedial work, and after the summer we’ve had, many of them need it. Aeration reduces compaction, and can be done either with an aerator (manual, or powered), or with a garden fork. Push it in as far as you can, wiggle it about a bit, pull back on it to slightly lift the ground, and then repeat across the whole area. This is, I have to say, a job that consumes a lot of time and energy. Scarifying (raking) is good for the lawn too – it gets rid of a lot of the dead material, as well as moss. Any bare patches can be re-seeded.

Check tree ties
Bear in mind that tree trunks will have expanded, even during the poor growing season we’ve had. So if you have trees that are staked, you may want to check they aren’t being strangled. If ties are too tight, loosen them a little. A galvanised nail banged through the tie and into the stake (not the tree!) will stop the tie from slipping down.

A perennial task, but despite the cooler temperatures, weeds are taking advantage of the rain to sprout and grow fast. Hoeing is not so effective in damp conditions, so weeds will need to be pulled or dug out. But…

Look for self-seeded plants
…pay attention, because among the weeds will be self-seeded plants you may want to keep. These might be wild flowers such as forget-me-nots and foxgloves – some people may see them as weeds, but many gardeners are happy to have them, as they’re colourful, attractive, and free. Many cultivated perennials, such as Verbena bonariensis, and Gaura, will self seed. And you might even find some surprises. In my garden, Salvia ‘Royal Bumble’ – a choice shrubby plant – has produced a couple of dozen seedlings in the ground around it.

Salvia ‘Royal Bumble’

Clean the greenhouse
Yes, I know – you don’t want to hear this, but it’s a good idea to thoroughly clean your greenhouse (if you’re lucky enough to have one). Cleaning the glass benefits the plants by maximising the light coming in. And keeping a clean greenhouse reduces hiding places for pests to over-winter.

Think about wildlife
Dead foliage and flower stems of perennials don’t necessarily need to be cut down until next spring. Left where they are, they will provide habitat and food for wildlife over the winter.

Store tender plants
Dahlia tubers can be lifted from the ground or removed from pots, cleaned up, and stored in dry material such as compost, sand or wood shavings, in a cool, dry, frost-free place. They don’t need light, so a garage or shed would be fine. It’s usual to wait until the first frosts have blackened the foliage before doing this. You can leave them in the ground, ideally with a thick mulch of compost on top, but there’s a risk they won’t come back next year if we have a cold and wet winter.
Cannas, frost-tender salvias (such as Salvia ‘Amistad’), pelargoniums etc. can be brought into the (freshly cleaned!) greenhouse (or a shed or garage, if you don’t have a greenhouse), in pots, ideally before the first frost. So keep an eye on the weather forecast!

Dahlia ‘Mexican Star’

Planting bulbs
It’s still a good time to plant bulbs for next season, in pots and in the ground. It isn’t too late to plant early bulbs like snowdrops, crocuses, or the little reticulata irises; or too early to plant later bulbs like alliums. I placed an order with Crocus again this year. Their plants can be expensive, but their prices for bulbs were very reasonable. I ordered ten each of three varieties of tulip, thirty Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’, and a pack of Iris reticulata. Very restrained!

A freshly planted pot of Iris reticulata ‘Alida’ – these flower in spring and are small and dainty – ideal for displaying on a table, where they can be seen more easily.

One problem I’ve encountered is that it’s impossible to identify where bulbs you planted into the ground in previous years are at this time, so you can end up inadvertently digging these up (and often damaging them), while you attempt to put the new ones in. Monty Don, on Gardeners World, offered a good solution to this problem. He planted his Allium hollandicum bulbs individually into small pots. He will plant them out next year, when bulbs in the ground are showing new growth, so he can avoid damaging them.

Covering pots with mesh, netting, chicken wire etc., until the bulbs start sprouting, will stop rodents digging them up and eating them. Some people do this for bulbs planted into the ground too, but it isn’t always practical.

Sow seed
And on the subject of greenhouses… Seeds of some annuals and perennials can be sown now, and kept in the greenhouse, rather than waiting for spring. Sweet peas are a favourite, but things like Ammi major, when sown in autumn, will flower earlier next year. A few weeks ago I sowed some Scabious (Scabiosa atropurpurea ‘Black Knight’), put them on a windowsill inside to germinate, and then moved them to a greenhouse bench to over-winter.

Scabious (Scabiosa atropurpurea ‘Black Knight’) seedlings – germinated on a windowsill inside, then moved to the greenhouse bench.

The summer is over, and it’s getting cold, damp, and dark. But there are still some warmer, brighter days. And the light at this time of year has a special quality. So if you choose your time, you can still enjoy the garden.

text & images © graham wright 2022