Gridlocked on the M25 recently, we were consoled by the thought that when we eventually reached home, half an hour’s blackberrying would revive the spirits. But no, we were greeted with the ominous sound of the hedgecutters at work and after two days there was not a blackberry, rose hip, sloe or hawthorn berry to be seen and no more swags of bright red black bryony berries or glistening honeysuckle berries, all of which are winter foods for wildlife in general and birds in particular. Perhaps we need less tidiness in the countryside. And whilst it is the time of the year to think about and get stuck in to the Great Autumn Clear Up some things can wait. By November, early winter has usually started with lower temperatures and howling winds bringing down thousands of leaves and it’s a bit difficult to know where to start. However…
Leaf collection… Leaf mould provides a great soil improver. I think that putting the mower on a higher setting on a dry day, both shredding the leaves on your lawn and picking up a few grass cuttings on the way, is the best way to speed up decomposition whilst adding nitrogen from the grass cuttings. Oak, beech and hornbeam leaves make the best quality leaf mould and, within a couple of years, this can be useful as a seed sowing medium. Thicker leaves like those of the chestnuts and sycamores are best shredded and avoid adding evergreen leaves to your leaf mould pile. Add them to your general compost heap instead. If you’ve got space, a simple square of chicken netting secured by four posts and in a sheltered place in the garden is ideal for storing leaves. Otherwise a few bin bags of leaves, pierced with holes to provide oxygen, will do the trick.
Border clearing… Take out annual weeds and compost them. Burn or bin the roots of pernicious perennial weeds such as dandelion and dock. Bindweed and ground elder can be zapped at this time of the year with something like Glyphosphate but they do need to be actively growing and you may prefer to leave it all until the spring if you can bear to. Debris around herbaceous plants like perennial geraniums make wonderful hiding places for garden pests so on to the compost heap with this but leave attractive seed heads for the birds to enjoy and to create some winter structure to your border. There’s nothing better than frost on teasel heads: I was reading a blog by Kate Bradbury the other day and loved her description of teasels being ‘a high rise block’ as a home for wildlife. So both grow them and leave them until the end of the winter. Being prolific self seeders you’ll never be without the plants but visiting finches will be thrilled.
Grasses… look beautiful in the winter. Don’t cut them back until they have completely collapsed and look really horrid. The Piet Ouldolf borders at Wisley as well as the planting round the lake at RHS Wisley will give you plenty of ideas as to which ones to consider growing.
Tidying up under roses… Any roses that have been suffering from black spot or any other nasty condition will drop leaves that need to be removed and burnt. Apply Armillitox or a Tar Oil Winter Wash to both the roses and the surrounding soil which should kill off any residue of disease. Some people prune now taking out any dead or diseased wood and opening the plant out. You may get some frost damage if you do this now but this can be tidied up later in the winter. Look out for suckers which come from below the plant and cut them back beneath the soil. You’ll know a sucker by the fact that it has seven leaves rather than five to the sprig and somehow the growth just looks different. Give the soil a tickle over with a fork so that the weather can break it down to a good fine tilth.
Planting new shrubs… If the soil is still warm, autumn is recommended as a really good time to plant shrubs. But I think it best to be selective. If your shrub is even slightly tender, I think I would hesitate and wait until the spring when the worst of a harsh winter is over. Oh, and promise not to prune evergreen shrubs like choisyas now. I have just seen one pruned by a ‘professional’ gardener and there is not a leaf left on it. Mind you, I’ll probably be proved wrong and find that it will flourish in the spring. Watch this space.
Selective Feeders… Give your camellias a feed of compost and some bonemeal at the beginning of the month. Tree peonies appreciate this treatment too.
Containers… Vine weevil lurk in containers so compost the contents of your summer containers plus any remaining compost and start afresh. If you haven’t already done so, take non-hardy container plants out of harm’s way by dragging them into a garage (with windows), or a greenhouse, shed or porch. Any that are too big to move might need fleece protection and to be raised above the ground both for frost protection and to prevent frost causing them to crack.
Trees with Autumn Colour… Its no wonder that holidays to the States to see the trees in the Fall are such big business. The Liquidamber, with maple like leaves, has several cultivars with the most fantastic autumn colours. Two worth mentioning are ‘Lane Roberts’ which colours up to a dark crimson and ‘Worplesdon’ which has narrow lobed leaves that turn both orange and yellow. But these are large trees and for a smaller garden, the thorns or Crataegus are hardy, reliable and able to withstand the vagaries of a hard winter. They’ll even put up with prevailing winds near the coast. Crataegus x persimilis ‘Prunifolia’ is a favourite. The buttery colours of birches and the foliage of the spindle tree are also worth looking out for. Sheffield Park in Sussex is inspirational at this time of year for colour. Spotted there a few years ago was Euonymus hamiltonianus subs. Sieboldianus which has yellow, pink or red leaves late in the year combined with the most beautiful abundant pink fruits. Perhaps more easily sourced, the European form of our native euonymus, E latifolius, has leaves that colour up beautifully and has spectacular large scarlet fruits.
Fungus… This is the time of the year when you can both pick mushrooms for breakfast and, less fortunately, spot honey fungus. Both appear when the rain arrives after a dry summer. Some fungi are harmless and in fact beneficial in that they break down discarded plant and animal matter to improve soil conditions but the honey fungus is not only difficult to eradicate but pretty easy to recognise. It will kill woody and herbaceous plants. The ‘toadstools’ appear in clumps around an ailing plant. These are honey coloured as the name suggests and have a collar like rim around their stem. The fungus spreads through root systems and can grow through the soil like Topsy. The only thing to do is to remove the infected plant and try to get out as much of the sick root system as possible. Fairy rings are always obvious at this time of the year too and they can be treated with a dose or two of Epsom Salts. I tried it last year and the ring hasn’t been completely eradicated but has certainly weakened although I seem to have two more now.
Lawns… Take out the thatch with a scarifier or a metal tined rake. There’ll be a lot of it and depending on the size of your lawn, it is hard work and you use muscles that you didn’t know you had but it will certainly improve things for your lawn. Alternatively, you might decide to let some of your cultivated grass go and just cut it once a year. Next year, you could plan to sow yellow rattle to reduce the strength of the grass so that you can perhaps add some wild flower plugs.
Plan for next year… Plan to plant trees in the next couple of months, but order now. Order some catalogues for both vegetables and flower seeds. Think about sowing broad beans for next year right now as well as peas. You’ll be able to harvest them in May if you do and then of course you could sow some later for successional harvesting. The RHS recommend the well known varieties, ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ and ‘The Sutton’ for sowing in November. Pea varieties would include ‘Feltham First’. The only thing with autumn sowing is that the plants are susceptible to really bad weather and mice and pigeons have a field day if they are not protected. Never mind, it’s worth a try and you can always sow more after you’ve fed the local wildlife.
- words: Sue Whigham
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