Country Gardener

Widely regarded as the authority on gardening in the south west

Getting out into the early winter garden

The garden begins to wind down in November and into December, as deciduous plants enter dormancy. But there are still gardening jobs to do this month to prepare for for when winter truly sets in. Make sure to get outside and enjoy the garden as it fades, leaving structural plants and evergreens to take centre stage. Here are the key gardening jobs for the weeks ahead.

Stay on frost watch every night

It is the time of the year when the first frosts will have blackened dahlias. If you haven’t done so already, move tender perennials into the shelter of a cool greenhouse, frame or garage and water less to bring on a state of semi dormancy. In colder frost traps, tuberous-rooted cannas and dahlias should be dug up and stored in just-damp compost in a cool, airy place. If you feel it isn’t necessary to move them and are confident about avoiding frosts, an ample mulch of compost or leaf mould should protect them and they can stay put.

Be selective when it comes to leaves in the garden

Only collect leaves where absolutely necessary. Don’t leave them too long on the lawns or they will kill the grass underneath. Where they have fallen in the beds and have not drifted too deeply, leave the earthworms to pull them into their burrows and to rot on the surface. However, where leaves have drifted deeply or are smothering smaller plants or silver Mediterranean herbs and perennials, clear to keep the plants dry and airy. Sweeping leaves off paths and terraces is all you need to keep the garden looking cared for and covers for a wealth of disorder in the beds.

leaf mould pitHarnessing the benefits of fallen leaves

To make leaf mould gather up fallen leaves (avoiding diseased ones) and collect them in a bin ideally made from chicken wire so that air can circulate.

If you don’t have a bin you can put them in black bin liners and then punch in some holes. Stash these away somewhere out of sight and in a few months they should have rotted down.

If the weather’s been particularly dry you might need to water the leaves before storing. Another trick to help break them down is to chop them up before storing by running the mowing machine over the top.

NB: Do not make leaf mould using diseased leaves, rose leaves - which often harbour diseases - or evergreen foliage, which takes a long time to break down.

Feed the birds

Putting out high-fat (high-energy) foods for birds in winter will help our feathered friends to get through the worst of the weather. Adjust the quantity you put out according to demand, regularly wash bird feeders and throw away old food. A useful tip is to cut off the fine netting that fat balls come in so birds don’t get their feet tangled up. A tray is good for ground-feeding birds, such as blackbirds, starlings and chaffinches, but be aware of rats, which may also be attracted. One technique that can prevent rats climbing poles to reach hanging feeders is to thread the pole through an upside-down plant pot.

lawn mowerPut away the lawn mower

By now, the weather should be cold enough for the lawn not to need regular cutting, although it usually needs an occasional tidy-up during warmer spells during the next few months. Before you abandon your mower in the shed, give it a bit of tender love and care so you’ll find it in good condition when you need it next. Clean the underside by scraping off dried clippings and make sure the collecting bag is empty. If it’s a petrol mower, drain off the fuel, as unleaded petrol doesn’t store well.

Buy pots of bulbs for indoors

For colour and scent over Christmas, you can’t beat pots of bulbs such as hyacinths or paper-white narcissus. Don’t worry if you didn’t get around to planting some in autumn, as you can buy pots of ready-grown bulbs now. To keep them at their best for as long as possible, put them in a well-lit spot in a cool room. The long leaves of narcissus look good when supported by a few twiggy stems from the garden. After the bulbs finish flowering, you can either throw them away or plant them in the garden.

 bare rootsOrder bare-root plants

Save money by ordering or buying bare-root plants, which are usually cheaper than the pot-grown equivalents. They are only available in the dormant season, so you need to be quick. Fruit, hedging, trees, roses and shrubs are the plants most commonly sold this way, but some nurseries also offer perennials. Try to plant them as soon as they arrive. Otherwise, give them a good soak in a bucket of water then roughly plant in a corner of the garden until you’re ready to put them in properly.

Time to get citrus plants under cover

The timing of getting your citrus plants under cover is critical and many gardeners lose plants at this time of the year through bad planning.

Plants should now be kept indoors or under glass in a light frost-free place. It is important to continue feeding and watering as necessary using a proprietary winter citrus feed. Only water when the soil is dry. How often this is will depend on where the plants are being over wintered. Pick up and dispose of any fallen leaves.


tulip bulb plantingNow is the traditional time for planting tulips

Planting tulips in early winter won’t avoid the fungal disease tulip fire, but it is a good time to plant tulips, as they enjoy the cool, moist conditions that are associated with this time of year. Tulip fire is a fungal disease of tulips caused by Botrytis tulipae, which produces brown spots and twisted, withered and distorted leaves. It is so named because plants appear scorched by fire and can be a real threat to the health of your bulbs.

Look for bulbs that have intact skins and don’t show signs of mould. Tulips should be planted two to three times the depth of the bulb. If squirrels are a problem in your area, cover the ground with chicken wire to stop them digging up the bulbs and eating them.


  • Plant out rhubarb crowns in an open position from November to March as long as the ground is not frozen.
  • Cut back herbaceous plants that are not needed for winter interest or food and habitat for wildlife but leave ornamental grasses to provide protection for overwintering beneficial insects.
  • Protect planted containers with bubble plastic or bring under temporary cover, particularly during prolonged rain when compost can become sodden. Remove pot saucers and raise pots off the ground on pot feet.
  • Take root cuttings of plants such as Japanese anemones, campanula, phlox and oriental poppies.
  • Check bonfires before they are lit for sheltering and hibernating animals, such as hedgehogs, toads and frogs.
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