Cultivation and Digging
Autumn is not the end of the gardening year but the start of next year’s growing season.
Aside from clearing up leaves on the lawn and from the pond, there are plenty of other jobs to be getting on with, such as hoeing out weeds, making new borders and revamping old ones as well as adding some goodness to the fruit and veg patch.
Cultivating tired soil is an important task and adding bulky organic matter to light free-draining soil will help to conserve moisture and add nutrients that have otherwise been lost to leaching. Digging and forking over the soil will also expose pests and weed seed for birds to munch on and create fluffy soil that’s perfect for sowing and planting in.
Planting In Autumn
Traditionally autumn is the key time for planting because, in the past, there was no container-grown nursery stock. This meant that the only way to plant was to use bare-rooted trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials that had been dug up from the nursery beds when the season is drawing to a close. Since most plants are now sold in pots, it’s possible to plant all year round provided the soil is not waterlogged or frozen.
For most plants, autumn is still the best time to plant, though, as soil will have been warmed during the summer but will be kept moist by autumn rains. Planting at this time of year also means that, by spring, plants should have a foothold and there’s little chance of periods of drought killing them. The exception to this rule are tender plants, such as Echium webbi, that will be killed by winter frosts and those prone to root rot, such as Pieris and Rhododenron, which may suffer if kept constantly moist.
Planting is easier if you have the right tool for the job. Kent & Stowe offer a good range of spades with rust-resistant stainless steel blades that make light work of slicing through heavy soil. They offer border spades with an extended shank to reduce back strain and more affordable, yet robust, carbon steel spades that have larger tread edges for added comfort whilst digging.
To plant for instant impact, fill your garden with a fabulous display of firework colours using deciduous shrubs such as Hamamelis x intermedia (witch hazel) ‘Diana,’ which has green foliage that turns fiery shades of red, orange and yellow around this time of year and Fothergilla major (mountain witch alder), which similarly has brilliant foliage colour throughout autumn.
I also like to add a playful feel and texture to my autumn and winter borders with ornamental grasses. Grasses contrast well with seed heads of summer-flowering perennials such as Agapanthus (African lily), Alliums (ornamental onions) and Monarda (bee balm). My own favourites are the grassy-leaved sedges, which include Carex buchananii (brown sedge) and the weeping form Carex flagellifera. They mix beautifully with almost any plant and look especially good in a prairie-style scheme or cottage garden, where they add character, colour and texture to the planting.
Berries are also in abundance at this time of year and if you plant plenty, birds and wildlife will be able to dine in your garden when other food gets scarce. For fine flowers and fruit, plant Viburnum opulus (snowball bush), Cotoneaster lacteus (late cotoneaster), which is evergreen and great trained as a standard weeping tree and Cotoneaster horizontalis (herringbone cotoneaster), which is perfect for growing in parched soil next to a wall. Pyrancatha (firethorn) also makes a good hedge and wall shrub but you’ll find that birds prefer those with red berries rather than the orange and yellow varieties.
Now is also a fantastic time to be thinking ahead to next season. For summer flowers and fragrance, you won’t beat roses. Buying barerooted roses is the cheapest way to buy enough to create a dedicated rose bed. Be sure to give your roses plenty of room to reach their natural size and to allow air circulation between them as this helps avoid fungal diseases to which roses can sometimes be prone.
Scour borders for free seedlings, which can be dug up and transplanted in other parts of the garden. Sowing seeds of Delphinium (larkspur), Verbascum (mullein), Digitalis (foxgloves) and Lupinus (lupin) on windowsills indoors at this time of year will mean that they’re ready to revitalise tired flowerbeds next year.
Planting a few spring-flowering bulbs, such as Narcissus (daffodils) and Tulipa (tulips), among ground-hugging plants will give an impressively full bed come spring. Alternatively, use dwarf bulbs, like Muscari (grape hyacinth), to outline an existing bed. To create a ribbon effect, plant bulbs 10cm deep in double lines. This way the line isn't broken if some bulbs bloom earlier or later. Use these top tips for cultivating and digging this autumn and look forward to a garden full of colour this month and beyond.