It’s not the end of the gardening year, says Jo Arnell, but time to look back on the seasons gone by and plan for the next ones.
November is a great month to reflect on the growing year gone by. Before the light and the colours slip completely from the landscape, we can assess what has worked well, what not so, and then make plans for next year’s borders.
Dreaming about next spring and summer and visualising flowers in the future also helps to lessen the blow of the coming dark, cold days. Any gaps left by the ravages of the freezing spring and scorching summer from earlier this year can be filled with good hardy plants that might fare better in our unpredictable weather.
Some plants, on the other hand, have positively thrived during the recent heatwave and reports of rare and exotic specimens bearing fruit or flowering after many barren years have been appearing. Mediterranean plants have certainly enjoyed the summer, as have tender meadow plants like Verbena bonariensis, Gaura, and the diminutive Mexican daisy Erigeron karvinskianus.
Sadly, some less fruitful plants are only just clinging on and will head into this winter in a weakened state, others have already chucked in the trowel and lie buried in brown bins or funeral pyre awaiting bonfire night. It is sad, but every plant death brings a new beginning, a space to try again with and an opportunity to grow something more rewarding.
We can focus critically and more clearly on the borders now, without the distraction of the flowers. If it’s all looking dismal and bare, think about adding some plants for winter interest. These can be evergreen, or have interesting bark, an elegant form, an anchoring, focal point feature of some kind.
Try to make sure that plants that come into their own during the winter either fade into the background to make way for summer plants, preferably becoming a foil for them, or best of all, will bring another point of seasonal interest later in the year.
Herbaceous plants have been to the fore in gardening recently and they are gorgeous, but sadly disappear under the ground to wait out the winter, leaving the borders looking a little sad (or at best poetic and full of wildlife if you have left the dead top growth on).
If this is the case and there’s a lack of structure, think carefully about the size and shape of the plants you intend to use. Evergreens will give you the same look all through the year, but deciduous shrubs can be very useful too if they have an interesting shape or other structural feature.
November is a great month for planting trees and shrubs. The soil is still fairly warm and roots will have a good long time to settle in and start growing before the pressure to support leaves begins again in spring.
I love the quiet handsomeness of evergreens like Viburnum davidii or Hebe ‘Red Edge’ – they sit stalwart and demure, waiting out the warmer months in the shadow of showier plants, like unsung heroes in the borders. They are often overlooked, especially among the dazzle of summer flowering plants, but they really come into their own in the winter.
Many have big glossy leaves which reflect light, helping the plant make the most of the low light levels, and looking pleasingly sleek and shiny to us. Contrastingly, if their leaves are tiny, they will form dense, punctuating shapes that help to anchor a planting scheme. Winter frost will positively enhance the look of many evergreens, gilding the foliage and the bare bones of the border.
Shrubs with hips and berries are lovely to look at and are of vital importance as a food source for wildlife. It’s hard to beat the fiery glow of Pyracantha – commonly called Firethorn, because of its bright berries, or reliable old Cotoneaster horizontalis for its sculptural, herringbone-shaped stems, bee-friendly blossom, red autumn foliage and berries.
Red is not the only colour for berries either; the Sorbus (Mountain Ash, or Rowan) family of trees have been cultivated with yellow (S. ‘Joseph Rock), pink (S. ‘Pink Pagoda), or white berries (S. Cashmiriana), as well as the more usual orange or red.
Five good structural plants
Box Excellent for adding formality and evergreen interest. Create low hedges, topiary shapes and focal points – beware, however of box blight and box tree caterpillar, which is now rife in London and surrounding areas.
Euphorbia wulfenii An architectural plant with handsome grey/green foliage in winter and long lasting lime green bracts in spring.
Miscanthus sinensis A tall grass with attractive seedheads that will persist all through the winter. Grasses are a good alternative to ‘blobby’ shrubs and bring movement to a border.
Osmanthus A small-leaved evergreen with tiny scented flowers in spring. It can be trimmed to a neat shape to make a dark backdrop for other plants.
Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ This dogwood has pretty, variegated foliage, good autumn colour and dark red stems on the young growth.
The beautiful dead
No description on a plant label will say ‘dies gracefully,’ but there are definitely some plants that look just as good as faded skeletons as they did in their prime. Sculptural seedheads, dead and dying stems make poignant silhouettes in the low slanting light at this time of the year. Plant them where they can be silhouetted among grasses, or will bring contrasts next to sturdier evergreens.
Hollow stems make wonderful winter homes for insects too, so don’t cut down all the thick perennial stalks, or the ladybirds will have nowhere to spend the winter (except perhaps within the window frames of the house).
If you like things neat and really do have to tidy up, you could make or buy a stylish bug hotel, or leave a pile of sticks and logs somewhere out of sight, so that the beneficial creatures, that could be helping you with pest control in the summer, have a sheltering place for the colder months.
Pots cheer up a dull winter corner
Bug hotels for overwintering insects
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