October in the Garden
Jobs and tips for October in the garden, what's looking good, observations plans.
The autumn crocus, Colchicum autumnale or naked lady, above. The flowers emerge "naked after the leaves have died down.
Right, Dahlias and other summer favourites often keep going until frost, wind and cold weather finally stop them.
Jobs / Tips
Plant spring flowering bulbs for next year if you haven't yet done so. There's nothing quite like some luxurious bowls of large hyacinths that you've planted yourself flowering in in the depths of winter. Spring flowering bulbs and shrubs
Apply an Autumn fertiliser to lawns - this is different to a spring fertiliser, so make sure you don't get them mixed up. Spring fertilisers have high nitrogen to get the leaves growing strongly, something you don't want now. An autumn fertiliser has high phosphorous and potassium to build up a strong root system that help get the grass plants through the winter and arrive at next spring in good shape for the new growing season.
The best time of year to make a new lawn or repair an existing one. Lay turf or scatter seed to repair damaged areas. Don't just throw the seed down and hope for the best. Get a rake and give the ground it a good stiff going over to break up the surface and get a layer of crumbly soil (this is hard work) scatter the grass seed and then rake again to bury most of the seed under the crumbly stuff you've just made. Water it well and don't walk on it for ages - until the first mowing in fact, which shouldn't be until the grass is about 2 inches tall.
Last chance to trim deciduous hedges - If you haven't done this by the end of the month, it's best left until the spring when they're growing again.
Place a net over your garden pond if you have one and if the are trees nearby, or at least check it on a regular basis and don't let fallen leaves sink to the bottom. They build up in surprising quantity, rob the pond of oxygen as they rot and introduce an abundance of nutrients that can encourage excessive algal growth next year.
Take hardwood cuttings of deciduous shrubs. They won't be rooted until well into next year so put them somewhere that they will not be disturbed.
Plant any shrubs, perennials, trees etc. that you had planned to. This is an excellent time for planting and the best time of year. It gives the plants a chance to get a decent root system before they become dormant, it also protects the roots from the worst of frost being below the ground rather than in a container. Come next spring, the plants are there from the earliest time to make growth directly into the surrounding soil.
Plants for October
September is often the most predictable month of the year. It starts off as high summer, last month when I sat down to write this, I had the curtains closed to keep the sun out and was still sweltering, then by the end it's most definitely autumn. There's not a lot of leaves turning yet, but I did notice this morning that my Virginia Creeper that grows up a long lowish wall by the side of the drive has started to turn red in places - I'm fairly certain it did that virtually overnight last night.
Summer bedding plants are starting to look less comfortable and while they are producing fewer new flowers, the ones they do have are lasting longer in the cooler temperatures, so that they are still looking as good as they did in high summer. In fact the white (actually named "lime") Petunia hanging just outside the front door is looking better now than it has all summer, the dark purple ones on the other side are fading fast though. One thing you do need to do is dead-head them still, not so much now to keep them flowering, but more to stop the dead-heads holding the damp and encouraging grey mould which will take over and kill them all the quicker. Frosts permitting, we should be able to get nearly another month from the summer bedding plants.
Some summer bedding plants that can withstand some cold weather can look their biggest and best into October such as this Ageratum.
One thing I tried this month is something I've been meaning to for ages, and that is mixing grass clippings with shredded newspaper to make compost. This is an often repeated suggestion and I saw it on a BBC gardening programme earlier this summer when the presenter had a nice clean tub of clippings and another of newspaper soaking in water, he took a few newspapers sheets and ripped them before dropping them onto the clippings, it took about 30 seconds and looked so easy. Now most of the time my garden produces a fairly good balance of brown and green material for the compost heaps. Grass clippings are especially useful as when they are mixed with other less easily compostable matter, their heat and nitrogen gets it all going nicely. It's taken a long time for me to have an excess of grass clippings to try this, but at last I did. I went down the garden with a few newspapers and a bucket of water. The newspapers went into the bucket to be soaked and I started to pull them out. Well - guess what happens to wet paper? it all sticks together, so getting one or two sheets thickness is really difficult, then you rip it and add it to the grass clippings. Now of course, your hands are wet and the clippings stick to your wet hands and get everywhere. After 10 minutes, I'd dealt with about a single newspaper and was rapidly advancing to a state of high dudgeon.
Conclusion - if you have the patience of a saint and all the time in the world, this method probably works. For normal mortals however, it's easier to add the grass as it comes and then mix it later using a fork when some non-grassy material arrives. The problem with newspapers is that they need to be added no more than one layer in thickness (of paper, i.e. a page - not a whole paper) if they are to rot quickly (less than a year) and that's a real pain to do in quantity. If there are several layers of paper, they manage to resist rotting far better than just about everything else. I suggest you don't bother and join me in pooh-poohing any further suggestions of doing this by people who quite clearly have never really tried it.
How does your garden look in the autumn? It's nice to have a last flourish, not only of leaves but also of flowers and berries, just as you think things are dying down, there's a a lot of potential still if you plan things right.
The Americans have their act together in this respect more than the British with all those wonderful maples that turn yellow, orange and red in myriad shades. Having the right sort of climate with hotter summers and cooler autumns helps too as the sun stuffs the leaves with sugars and the cold nights allow the latent potential to develop. In Britain it's not quite so spectacular even given the same plantings.
Berries are good in the autumn, Pyracanthas are good with some nice oranges and yellows as well as the traditional red. The birds love the red ones too, I've a large one growing up the side of the house that's covered in red bunches at the moment, by the end of the month it'll be pretty much stripped bare to feed the blackbirds, which I'm quite happy about. I've another alongside the garage with orange berries that's looking good this year for the first time thanks to the last couple of years careful pruning away of competitors and mulching to feed it.
That reminds me I've always wanted to get a Callicarpa Profusion (shrub) - beauty berry for the wonderful purple coloured autumn berries that are pretty unique at this time of the year in the garden.
Flowering perennials are relatively rare in the autumn, the roses are still going fairly strong, but the real stars for me are Rudbeckia - black-eyed-susan in golden yellows, and orange and reds such as provided by Dahlias, "Bishop of Langdaff" is a particularly strong performer. The bright accents really set off the more muted autumnal tones.
Chrysanthemums and Michaelmas Daisy are also good for the cooler days of autumn too. Chrysanthemum x koreanum is recommended for growing from seed.
Saving your half hardy bedding plants. Many of the summer bedding plants that we grow and usually treat as annuals are actually perennials and can easily be saved from one year to the next. The most successful for me are Geraniums (Pelargoniums), including the ivy-leaf trailing varieties too, and Fuchsias. I have tried others, but it's really not worth the effort and they are so cheap and reliable when bought as plug plants next spring.
Bring them into shelter before they are hit by a frost. Cut the stems down drastically by about 2/3rds of their length (don't worry if this means you have virtually no leaf, they should grow again. Strip off any dead or dying leaves and flower heads. Anything that can rot over the winter will rot and may spread to the living plant.
They need to be over wintered in a sheltered but cool place which is frost free. A usually unheated greenhouse is ideal as long as you can heat it gently during the coldest periods to stop it frosting inside, a small paraffin heater will do this effectively, place it on the ground so the heat can rise to best effect. I have a plastic roofed enclosed area between the house and garage with a door at either end which does the job nicely. Leave the plants in their summer containers and lift them off the ground on shelves if possible or on bricks to just raise them above the coldest temperatures. Water very sparingly, they are best kept dry as far as possible as long as the leaves don't wilt as a result. Many plants can cope with cold, few can cope with cold and wet together.
It's a bit hit and miss, so it's a good time to take cuttings of the 2/3rds of stems that you trim off in case the parent plants don't make it. There's also the problem of vine weevils, I've nursed a load of ivy-leaved geraniums through winter more than once just to lose them all in March when the vine weevil larvae in the containers woke up early and ate all the nice young roots - c'est la vie.
The way I see it is if you have the space, you might as well try it as otherwise you'll just throw the plants away. Come the spring, they are best repotted in fresh compost to get them off to a good start for next year.
Autumn is the time for the great garden tidy-up. It's not just an aesthetic job, sweeping up leaves, cutting back dead flowers, and branches removes places that pests can over-winter and also gives fungal spores less places to hide and food to eat. The best thing you can do with all of these cuttings, sweepings and prunings is to shred them up and make a compost heap.
Don't be too enthusiastic about cutting everything back, tall dried seed heads from many plants such as grasses add a distinctive elegance to the winter garden and are particularly good when picked out by the low-lying sun or highlighted by frost.
Don't compost leaves or branches from diseased plants or fruit however - these should be removed from the garden down the skip or burnt on a bonfire. If you do have a bonfire, then don't just pile it up and let it smoulder slowly - that just generates a lot of smoke over a long time period. Stay with it and "feed" the fire with (preferably) dry fuel to get a good blaze going, this greatly reduces the overall smoke produced and the fierce heat means that the smoke rises high into the air and is dispersed rather than being blown around at low level.
It's also a lot more fun this way - ideal conditions are a dry day and a bit of a chill in the air but not too much. My bonfire area is near the shed so I can stand inside if it starts to rain. There's something particularly satisfying about getting a good burn going when there's rain coming down as well.
Larger branches and sections of tree trunks can be stacked up in a quiet corner of the garden to form a slowly decaying log-pile. If you're lucky, this may become the preferred refuge of hedgehogs. At the very least, it will provide a home and food for all manner of beneficial insects and increase the diversity and therefore stability of your garden ecosystem.
Leaves, leaves and more leaves. Not too many at the moment, but as the month goes on there will be more and more arriving. My preferred way to deal with them I think is to set the lawn mower higher than you have done through the summer, put the grass box on and mow the lawn. The mower does a wonderful job of collecting the leaves, shredding them to speed up composting and mixing the carbon rich leaves with nitrogen rich grass to help the proper composting of both.
Put the mixture on the compost heap, water well, cover and leave to make lovely garden compost. If you have far more leaves than grass, do a similar thing as it shreds the leaves which is one of the best things you can do to to help them rot down, but instead of putting them on the compost heap, place them in a "leaf bin". This is a compost heap just for autumn leaves only, these take longer than ordinary garden compost to rot down. Four posts driven into the ground with chicken wire mesh stretched across them to hold the leaves in will do the job nicely.
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