It has been an odd year. A year in which many of us have been forced to stay in, but one of the benefits has been that many of us have grown to appreciate, even cherish our gardens much more.
With a bit of work in March and April, I’m sure that you’ve relished a summer of lush colour and welcomed the new wildlife that has come into your environment, whether that be just bees and butterflies or larger, more active guests like hedgehogs and foxes. Many of you will have enjoyed strawberries, peas, potatoes, and tomatoes grown by your own hands and the lush, quietness of long summer afternoons in the backyard.
But now that Autumn is upon us and the main growing season is coming to an end, your garden will slowly go into a period of rest and dormancy. That doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy blooms, fruit and vegetables for a few months more, but as winter approaches and we feel the air become a little more nippy and the darkness encroach on our long evenings, we have to prepare our gardens for their period of rest, renewal and rebalancing.
Autumn is a busy period for gardeners, and we will give you a quick guide to the jobs you should be doing to set up your gardens for another productive year. It is worth putting in a little extra time and effort now, so your garden will look neat and well-tended through the winter months – it will also mean that you have got a head start next spring.
Planting & Transplanting: Autumn is the best time to plant your winter bedding plants and move plants around that have outgrown their space. The soil will still be warm and will be quite moist thanks to regular rain showers and it will allow your plants to get comfortable in their new home and start putting down roots. Autumn is the best time to plant roses, and it's also a great time to install bare root, wildlife-friendly hedging bushes, such as buckthorn, alder, pussy willow, and hawthorn.
Planting bulbs: Bulbs should be put in now, so they have the time to emerge in early spring and welcome a new year with a blaze of colour. It is best to plant bulbs in clumps of odd numbers – three, five or seven in a group. Try to plant your bulbs at a depth two to three times their height. And then just wait! You could also consider planting nectar-rich bulbs such as crocus, snake’s head fritillary, alliums, and grape hyacinths to feed next year’s hungry emerging bees.
Collecting Leaves: Little and often is the rule of thumb with leaf collection. Do not let your leaf litter grow to unmanageable proportions. If you rake up your leaves every few days, you can spare yourself a backbreaking task as if leaves are left where they fall, they will get wet and decay, making pathways and patios slippery, discolouring paving, brickwork and decking, killing off your lawn and offering a great hiding place for pests like slugs and snails. You can compost your dead leaves, as long as you mix them with ‘greens’ in the compost bin. Alternatively, what I do with my dead leaves is to collect them into porous, biodegradable hessian sacks, lay them down in a sheltered corner and let them rot down for a year until they degrade into leaf mold, which makes a great weed-suppressing, nutrient-rich mulch for your borders and pots.
Collect seeds: As your flowers end their bloom, and your plants shut down for the winter months, now is the time to collect seeds to sow in the spring. You need to collect seeds when they are just about to disperse, as this means they are ripe and therefore more likely to germinate. Harvest too early and they will not be ripe; harvest too late and they will be gone. It is best to store your seeds in paper envelopes, as plastic retains moisture, which is bad for your seeds. Also, make sure you write what seeds you have in the envelope as soon as you collect them, as you might not remember in six months’ time.
Tidy your beds & borders: Now is the time to remove and compost all the spent growth in your beds. Remove dying leaves and collapsed stems from herbaceous perennials, either pulling by hand or cutting at the base with secateurs. Leave any stems that have attractive seed heads for the birds to enjoy. Remove weeds, then spread compost or well-rotted manure over the soil to insulate plant roots – the worms will work it in over winter. I would advise you harvest your compost, using it as a top-dress on your beds and getting the compost bins ready to receive new material. You should also clear spent plants on the vegetable plot before they start to rot and become host to pests and diseases. Compost everything unless it is diseased. Chop beans and peas off at ground level, leaving their nitrogen-fixing roots in the soil to feed next year’s crops. Cut raspberry and blackberry canes off at ground level, cut the crowns and old leaves off strawberries. You should also remove any plant supports like canes. Wash them and store them somewhere dry for reuse in the new year.
Clean out the pond: Scoop out any leaves that have fallen into the water and prune back the marginals in preparation for winter. Decomposing leaves can poison your water, and the nitrates that they give off as they rot will encourage an unsightly algal bloom in springtime. I would recommend that you net your pond over autumn and perhaps put a block of barley straw in the water to suppress algae. Now would also be a good time to clean out any bird feeders and nesting boxes.
Tidy the lawn: Before the wetness of winter sets in, it is important you give your lawn a bit of tender loving care. Make sure you remove any fallen leaves, then rake the turf with a spring-tined rake to remove any moss or thatch. After raking it is worth brushing in a sandy top dressing and feeding with a fertiliser high in potassium, but low in nitrogen. You should also go over the surface of the lawn with a garden fork to help improve aeration and drainage. Do not mow after the end of October.
Feeding: The autumn is a good time to start to replenish your soils. Dig in manure, bone meal, compost, kelp and rock phosphate, as doing it now will allow time for it to break down and release its nutrients into the soil ready for planting in the spring. If you really want to help your soil, you could consider planting a cover crop such as beans, peas or clover to mow or cut three to four weeks before spring planting and then let the cuttings dry and dig them into the soil. Mulching: Mulching in autumn makes sense, as the soil is still warm and moist and will help keep winter weeds at bay, protect your plants’ roots from frosts, and prevent the soil washing away in any storms. Mulches can be organic or inorganic. I always prefer organic mulches and use garden compost, wood chip, bark, pine needles, leaf mold, well-rotted manure and straw. Depending on where you are in the country you can also use seaweed and spent hops. I always try to apply mulches around the base of my plants and in my raised beds to a depth of 5cm. Organic mulches will break down over the winter and release nutrients into the soil and help improve its structure. Tool maintenance: Before you put your tools away for the winter, it is worth giving them a service. Clean and sharpen the blades of your lawn mower and oil the moving parts. Clean your hand tools of soil to prevent rust and sharpen your shears, secateurs and spades then give them a quick oil. Clean any wooden handles and protect them with linseed oil. If you would like any help maintaining your garden and preparing it for another year, please leave your details in the comments below, give us a ring, or reach out to us on social media or email.
Photo credit: Natalie Thornley