We welcome back the wisdom of our resident gnome as the gardening year turns to autumn.
A word now about wildlife; why bother, what’s all the fuss about, what can I do that’s going to make any difference? Well, to answer the last part first, when lots of people decide to make a difference either as groups or individuals, it does have a big impact. Post World War two farming methods: huge fields resulting in the loss of 50% of hedges and ditches, mono-cropping, widespread use of pesticides and herbicides, have dangerously damaged the biodiversity of these lands. Many species of flora and fauna have become extinct or are rapidly heading that way. We can’t bring them back, but we can provide habitats for those remaining. Did you know that most ponds are now in back gardens, school grounds, parks and allotments? (But those containing fish are no help to wildlife as fish eat tadpoles.)
It doesn’t take much time or space to provide an area of wildlife habitat in an out of the way corner. Creatures need something to eat and drink and a place to live and produce their young. A small and fairly shallow pond with gently sloping sides and plants both in and around it to provide shelter and shade is an ideal focal point; the liner could also be extended under the surrounding soil to provide a boggy area for further plant diversity. Do look at a book or website for specific instructions on pond making and appropriate planting. A small heap of rocks nearby and a little woodpile, some bark mulch, an area of long grass and some native hedging will complete the picture. You can also use our step by step guide on how to make a wildlife pond.
For the hedge, choose a minimum area of two metres long and half a meter wide, clearing it of perennial weeds and adding organic matter well in advance of planting, which is done from November to March. This will take five hawthorn or blackthorn plants 45cm apart, which will just look like sticks with roots on; don’t plant if soil is waterlogged or frosty; after firming them in water well and mulch with chipped bark or something similar. Keep well watered in their three years especially in spring and summer. Prune to 15cm initially; climbers like ivy and honeysuckle can be added once the hedge is established. These are the best for wildlife; however I’ve gone off them as they are so prickly and do need regular trimming. If I were to establish a little hedge now, I would choose the purple myrobalan cherry plum: Prunus cerasifera “Atropurpurea” and plant them 60cm apart, pruning initially to 30cm; this has lovely purple foliage and flowers on bare wood from early February through to late March, with fruits in autumn. A female holly (as long as there’s a male around), Cotoneaster conspicuus decorus or native yew would be good evergreen choices with berries.
What else can we do now? Just leaving an area of lawn un-mown and un-weeded is a start; this provides cover and food for a variety of creatures. A thick mulch of woodchip on ornamental areas like shrubberies and herbaceous borders and plenty of ground cover plants also provide good habitats, as do climbers on a trellis. A birdbath, out of the reach of cats is helpful, and of course in winter bird feeders and then nesting boxes in spring. But PLEASE don’t forget to keep these clean and disinfected to keep birds healthy. Anything with winter berries is good, but of course can’t really be planted now as late winter is the appropriate season for putting deciduous shrubs in. Allow a patch of nettles and garlic mustard to grow in a sunny corner for some of the rarer butterflies to lay their eggs.
Just being organic makes a big difference as we don’t use anything to poison the environment and so encourage natural control of pests like aphids, and we have compost bins which are wildlife havens in themselves. The best predators are ladybirds, hoverflies and lacewings; and some of the best flowers to attract these are yarrow, calendula (pot marigold), cosmos, fennel, convolvulus tricolour, limnanthes and goldenrod (solidigo). We can also fool pesky insect pests by growing strongly scented plants around our veg patches, such as tagetes, the African and French marigolds, and herbs. Bees and butterflies also deserve a warm welcome and in fact many flowering plants will attract these. Selecting a range of plants that will give year-round flowers seems to keep the bumble-bees happy. Borage, valerian, phacelia (a green manure), sedum spectabile, sunflowers, teasels, and of course buddleia are all easy and useful things to include. I find that my dwarf comfrey flowers all winter. Then there’s that lovely fragrant winter flowering shrub Viburnum x bodnantense.
It’s time to keep adding to the compost bins and do a final turn to nearly full ones to let in more air. Any that is ready can be used around the winter crops or spread on any bare ground. Probably the semi-rotted stuff half filling the bins will be too wet or too dry to be ideal, so do it like lasagne: into a new bin put a layer of dry then a layer of soggy and so on, if it’s all too wet add some cardboard or crumpled newspaper. Keep it covered over winter and even if it’s not perfect by early spring it can go into the spud and bean trenches. There will be plenty of vegetable matter to fill up the emptied bins now that many things have finished production; if possible try to fill a whole bin in one or two days to really cook it fast, activators such as chicken pellets or human pee will speed it up, then turn the contents after about ten days to reheat it, (it will have reduced by about half).
Green manures can be sown in September, choose a fast growing one like mustard, or phacelia which often survives the winter; in fact, my favourite is forget-me-not! It’s really hardy and wonderfully pretty in spring when it provides nectar for insects. Once it has finished flowering just pull it up and put in the compost bin and you will find it leaves the most wonderfully textured soil. It’s really good to keep plants covering the ground over winter. Don’t dig it over unless you are clearing perennial weeds, it wrecks the soil structure.
By the end of autumn tasks neglected over the last couple of months can be done, such as clearing all dying plant waste into the compost bins; almost all vegetables need to be gathered to store (and then checked regularly for rotting) except the hardy winter ones which can stay where they are til needed; compost and well rotted manure can be spread on moist soil now if you put a protective cover over the top, such as cardboard or black plastic (well weighted down), to prevent washing out of the nutrients by winter rain, and to provide winter feasting and shelter for worms and micro-organisms.
Winter pruning: hedges and shrubs can be trimmed and tidied, removing any dead, diseased or congested wood, (not conifers, nor those that will flower before the longest day;) large shrubs like hazel, elder and buddleia can be coppiced almost to ground level by a third of their growth; climbers can be tidied and grape vines cut back to two buds from the main stem. Apple and pear trees can be pruned between November and March, and blackcurrant bushes reduced by one third, cutting the oldest stems down to the ground.
Protecting: all tender plants need to be brought into shelter in November before the frosts; greenhouses, porches and windowsills in a cool room are all suitable; some growth may need to be trimmed and they should only be watered sparingly. Dahlias and cannas need to be lifted and stored somewhere dark, dry and cool, preferably in a peat-free medium to prevent drying out (unless you live in a particularly mild area with very well drained soil, when it’s possible to get away with leaving them in the ground). Trees and bushes planted during the last year may need some protection from frost, snow and wind; rake mulches away from around established fruit trees so that birds can eat up the soil dwelling pests; if you haven’t done it yet, put grease bands around the trunks of apple and pear trees to stop the wingless female coddling moth from climbing, it also helps to stop ants.
Planting: bare rooted trees(including fruit trees and bushes), shrubs, hedges and roses can be planted from November throughout the winter; on heavy wet soil its best to wait until February so that the roots aren’t rotting in the cold and damp, but now is a good time to do it on well drained land as there is still a little warmth left for the roots to settle into. Do make sure that the ground is well cleared of perennial weed roots and has organic matter added, plus a handful of bone-meal; the hole should be plenty big enough for the roots and depth of planting should be the same as its previous depth, whether bare rooted or container-grown. It’s not too late to plant tulip and lily bulbs. If you fancy a bit of winter fragrance, plant a scented winter flowering shrub near to the house; Christmas box: Sarcococca confusa; Winter honeysuckle: Lonicera fragrantissima; Viburnum X bodnantense are all good choices. Hardy annuals such as calendula (pot marigold) and nigella (love in a mist) can be sown now for early flowers.
Planning: Work out the vegetable growing plan including crop rotation: spuds-> legumes-> brassicas-> roots. Make a list of everything you want to grow, where it will go and when it needs to be sown, and order the seeds. Do make notes on what did well or badly and why, so that next year we don’t make the same mistakes, nor forget what contributed to our successes.
If you are planning to redesign your ornamental garden for next year, now is the time to make a start by taking out anything that you don’t like, or is in the wrong place, too big, not getting enough light and so on; pop it into a pot of well drained potting compost over the winter and replenish the soil with organic matter and apply a mulch to protect the soil over winter. Make a plan including sunny and shaded areas, windy and sheltered parts; note where plants are still in and how much space and height they reach to determine where to put new and transplanted plants. When getting new plants, make sure that their requirements are met by the conditions your garden has to offer; for instance moist or well drained soil, full sun or shade, shelter and so forth.
Repairs and renewals: Now is a good time to mend hard landscaping features such as paths, fences, bed edging, compost bins and sheds; tools can be cleaned, sharpened and oiled.
Clearing: All vegetable beds, except those containing hardy winter veg. Continue to clear up leaves into a suitable receptacle. Leave some foliage on the dead herbaceous perennials (unless it’s gone slimy!) as winter cover for the plant and for insects; for those plants that do disappear, it’s worth popping a label in so that we don’t accidentally dig them up. It really is worth keeping up with weeding all through the winter, it saves lots of time come spring. If pond plants are congested, it’s a good time to thin them; put netting back afterwards to keep autumn leaves out.
Cleaning: The greenhouse can be emptied out and given a good clean out scrubbing the staging down and cleaning the glass before insulating it; check all tender plants for pests and diseases before bringing them to over-winter. Get ahead by cleaning pots and seed-trays now. Tidy the shed and chuck out anything no longer needed. Clean out bird nest boxes and do start to put food out for them once the weather gets really cold. Wrap up warm and enjoy the autumn colours and share stories of the gardening year with us.