It's autumn and David Coton is getting the garden prepared for the onset of colder weather but, at the same time, the arrival of spring bulbs in the garden centre is a reminder that we should also now be planning ahead for next year.
In most parts of the country frost will arrive in October and, with the evenings drawing in, there is a decidedly autumnal feel to the garden. But there's no time to put your feet up, the last of this year's produce is still to be harvested and the garden needs to be tidied and prepared for the winter. You must also ensure the garden is full of life next spring by sowing and planting now.
Most spring bulbs should be planted now, so that their roots are established before the really cold weather, tulips can wait until November. Don't forget to dig in organic soil conditioners and grit if the soil is too wet. Using a bulb planter place the bulbs twice as deep as their depth and think about naturalising them in grass, creating drifts or growing varieties such as lilies through low shrubs.
Specially prepared hyacinth bulbs that can be forced to flower for Christmas are available in garden centres. Plant them in a bowl with at least 25% above the gritty compost. Water and leave in a dark place for 6 weeks or until you see strong white shoots. Bring them out into the light and warmth and this will trigger them into flowering.
Planting, Sowing And Tidying
Plant out wallflowers, forget-me-nots, polyanthus etc and sow hardy annuals such as calendula and larkspur. Move sweet peas that have germinated into a cold frame, they can still be sown now (3 to a 3in pot). Take hardwood cuttings of shrubs.
Mulch azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias with compost or rotted bracken. Fork over gaps in the border and spread compost. Tie climbers to protect them from high winds.
Take hardwood cuttings of redcurrants, blackcurrants or gooseberries. Choose a length of new striaght growth, strip off the leaves and shorten them to about 6ins. Place in gritty compost over winter for them to strike.
Take the strain out of raking up leaves and either use leaf grabbers or a vacuum to collect them. Bag them, using a fork to make drainage holes, and the resulting leaf mould will be perfect for sowing seeds and cuttings. The garden is full of composting material at this time of the year, grass cuttings, annual flowers, vegetable leaf stems etc. but avoid woody material that takes too long to break down. Burn anything that is diseased, potato plants and pernicious weeds such as ground elder and bindweed.
Lift pots and containers off the ground to ensure effective drainage, this is especially important during a wet autumn and winter.
Lawn, Leaves And Hedges
When the soil is still warm is the best time to seed or turf a lawn after carefully preparing the ground. Repair any patches on existing lawns, aerate the grass and rake out moss. Collect fallen leaves and apply an autumn feed.
Clip hedges now and they will remain in good shape over the winter. Keep deadheading and feeding your hanging baskets to keep them going as long as possible. Clean all your pots and trays using disinfectant and elbow grease before rinsing and drying.
It's a good time to relocate shrubs, trees and divide perennials when the soil is still warm, firm in and water well.
Protect Against Frost
All frost tender plants should be protected or transferred to a frost free environment. Plants growing in your border can be transferred to a container, although they may have to be pruned before you can get them in a greenhouse or conservatory.
Protect dahlia tubers until May next year by removing top growth and mulching. If you have heavy water retentive soil, remove the tubers and, after drying, dust them with sulphur and then store in a box of dry compost.
Protect late season salad crops with cloches that has been cleaned to let through maximum light and leave the ends open to encourage ventilation.
In The Greenhouse
Reduce watering tomatoes but don't let them dry out. Stop watering begonias and, when dry, store the tubers in dry compost. Sow annuals for next year and pot up rooted cuttings. Indoor bulbs can be planted and put in a dark position. Line the glass with insulating material such as bubble wrap or other polythene. If you have seedlings, bear in mind that insulation restricts light and that seedlings need all that they can get. Harvest chillies, this will encourage others to ripen.
Plant winter salad crops such as mustard, rocket and lettuce in the greenhouse or under a cloche, choose varieties that don't mind limited light and lower temperatures.
Fruit And Vegetables
Except for parsnips that need frost to improve their flavour, begin to lift root vegetables for storing. Beetroot can be kept successfully for several months in boxes filled with damp sharp sand. Use hessian sacks to store potatoes in a cool, dry, dark place. After removing loose scales, onions can be tied together and hung in a frost free shed. When asparagus foliage yellows, cut the stems back to ground level.
Transplant strawberry runners that have rooted, either in the existing bed or, to fruit earlier, into a pot that can be placed in the greenhouse. Instead of sowing hardy crops, buy plug plants and plant in well prepared ground preferably under a cloche.
Prune gooseberries and blackberries, mulch with manure or compost. Blackcurrents produce fruit on young wood, so remove old stems at the base so that plants are renewed every three or four years.
Pick pears when they come off easily from the branch with the stalk attached and place on a windowsill, they won't ripen on the tree.
Chillies lose a lot of taste when they are dried, so pick them when they are ripe and then freeze. The plants will continue to produce fruit until Christmas when fed once a week with liquid seaweed.
Sow early varieties of broad bean and leave in an unheated greenhouse until planting out next February or March.
When harvesting cabbage don't dig up the roots, cut the stalk with a sharp knife and you'll get a second crop of small tasty leaves. The red leaves from radicchio chicory can be harvested throughout the winter.
Tidy up any broken tree branches and check apple and pears for canker, cut the diseased parts out with a knife and burn. Unblemished apples can be stored in a cool place and should be wrapped separately, pears needn't be wrapped.
Green manure can be sowed in vegetable plots but be sure to dig in before it goes to seed. Collect runner bean seeds when the pods have dried and store in a cool, dark place until the spring. Continue to earth up leeks and celery.
When planting autumn onion sets and garlic it's best to buy the garlic from recognised suppliers as supermarket garlic is often grown overseas and may not suit our climate.
Keep pond netting in place to prevent leaves from adjacent trees and hedges falling and decaying in your pond, with the resultant noxious gases later harming your fish. You will also need to continue to remove dying foliage from any pond plants.
Floating Pond Plants
Floating plants like Water Hyacinth can also be removed from the pond and kept in the greenhouse during this time as it is delicate in colder weather, especially frost. Water Hyacinth is a native of warmer climates such as Africa and this is also why we rarely see it flower in the UK, as we do not normally have weather that is consistently warm enough.
If you want your Water Hyacinth to flower next year then try keeping it in your greenhouse a little later into the spring next year, but be careful when moving it outside as it will have grown used to the greenhouse warmth.
Remove any blanket weed if this is still a problem and also continue to cut back oxygenating plants and other pond plants that have grown excessively.
Frost And Ice
If frost has been forecast make preparations now. When a pond completely freezes over gases are trapped and there could be a lack of oxygen, this can really cause damage to fish and wildlife. I'd definitely say to invest in a decent pond heater, this will keep a small area free from ice allowing gases to escape. It's not going to work miracles and melt all of the ice unfortunately but without it you could face wildlife fatalities right away or later on in the winter.
You won't need your UV clarifier switched on during the winter as there is not enough sunlight to cause green water problems. We do advise to keep your pump running if possible, as moving water is much less likely to freeze over, especially if there is a substantial flow. This will also add vital oxygen to the pond. Ensure that the pump is raised off the bottom of the pond so as not to disturb the warmer water and any overwintering wildlife.