The nights will soon start to draw in, and October will see the clocks going back and there’s a real threat to a drop in temperatures. Gardening time might feel curtailed by the shorter sunlight, but the days are often glorious, with the autumn colour a more than adequate compensation for the light slipping away. The main jobs are to start thinking about planting spring bulbs and shrubs and trees for next year and to get the lawns and vegetable plots ready for winter.
Planning for spring in autumn bulbs
Autumn and spring are perhaps the most industrious times of the year and it is worth thinking about one when you are working in the other. Bulb planting is a good example, and now is the time to think about how to light up the garden when it wakes after hibernation. Bulbs are incredible value, for they have instant impact, but it is always better to buy few varieties and larger numbers of each. Think tens and multiples of ten for a generous effect in pots. Think big and if you have the budget go for hundreds and see what impact they will have on your garden -buy wholesale, anyone can if the numbers are large enough, if you are planting in grass, and look into the right varieties. The smaller-flowered narcissus cyclamineus hybrids such as ‘Jack Snipe’ have fine foliage and so are easily incorporated, and there are early, mid-season and late varieties to keep the display working from late winter until May.
The earlier you plant bulbs the better, for the soil is still warm, and getting the roots established before the weather closes in will help them fight wet and rot. That said, tulips are happy to go in as late as the end of November, so leave them until last. The general rule is that bulbs should be planted at two and a half times their own depth, and if you are planting in drifts, work on the principle that if you threw them in the air, you would plant where they landed
Keep an eye out for drops in temperature
Bring tender plants under protection. If you've got tender plants, such as canna, now's the time to bring them indoors before they get killed by the frost. Choose a light, frost-free place such as a greenhouse or coldframe. Then keep them on the dry side during the winter, so they don't put on much growth. To reduce the threat of disease, check the plants on a regular basis and cut off any dead leaves and flowers before they have the chance to rot. The plants can then be brought back into growth in spring by gradually increasing the amount of water they receive.
Turn the compost heap
As the garden is tidied in preparation for winter, lots of material is generated for composting. To encourage it to rot down quickly, turn the contents regularly to stir it up and allow in lots of air. In the colder weather, the rate of decomposition will naturally decrease, but it will soon speed up during warmer spells.
Plant your bare root trees
Autumn is the perfect time to plant bare root plants, while the soil is still warm from the summer. Follow our simple planting guide to get your bare root plants off to a great start.
If possible, plant your bare root plants as soon as they arrive, so that the roots don't dry out. If it's not possible to plant them straight away, keep them in their packaging and store them in a cool place. If you need to store them for several weeks, it's best to heel them in.
When you're ready to plant, take your plants out of their packaging and place them with their roots in a bucket of water for an hour or so.
Look for the soil line on the trunk of each plant. This will show you how deep it was planted before it was lifted. When you plant, make sure that the plants end up at this same level in the soil.
If you have heavy clay soil, the sides of the hole can become 'smeared' as you dig, making it hard for roots to get through and spread. You can avoid this by digging a square planting hole - the corners will act as guides, encouraging the roots to spread out from the planting hole.
Mix a small handful of bonemeal with the soil before you backfill the hole, to add nutrients and give the plant a good start.
When backfilling, make sure the soil gets in and around all the roots. Firm the soil around the trunk gently with the heel of your boot to get rid of any air pockets in the soil.
Finally, water your plants in well. You shouldn't need to water them regularly over winter but once they start to put on leaves in spring, give the roots a good soaking once a week, especially in dry spells.
Mulch, mulch and more mulch
Mulching is one of the best things you can do for your garden. A mulch is simply a layer of goodness spread on top of the soil and offers lots of benefits.
Mulching should be done when the soil is warm and moist, before the first frosts (spring and autumn are perfect). Don't mulch cold, wet ground. If you don't get time to mulch in autumn before the frosts set in, don't despair — you can still do it in spring once the ground has warmed up.
It feeds the soil and improves its structure, keeps plant roots protected when the weather turns icy, and helps to suppress all those weeds waiting to spring into action when spring returns.
Make sure the soil is moist and weed-free, then spread a layer of mulch, ideally at least two inches thick, across beds and around trees and shrubs. Take care not to mulch right up against woody stems and trunks, and don't smother low-growing ground cover plants. When mulching around trees, mulch the whole area under the tree's canopy.
A warmer welcome for house plants
Think about bringing in any houseplants that have been outside. Acclimatise them slowly if you can. In warmer areas of the country it is worth risking half-hardy perennials until the end of October to make the most of the finale, but in frost-prone areas you will need to bring them under cover, or into the shelter of the buildings
- Get autumn-planted garlic, onions and shallots in the ground before the weather turns cold. In warm soils the bulbs should root strongly, which will, hopefully, result in better yields next season.
- Remove dead, diseased and dying branches from ornamental trees. Use a sharp, hand held pruning saw to avoid leaving behind any snags or tears to the bark.
- Reduce the risk of blackspot disfiguring your roses by removing leaves that fall around the base of plants, preventing spores of the fungal disease overwintering in the soil. Put them in the dustbin or burn them - not on the compost heap.
- If you are growing salads for use over autumn and winter, check regularly for foot rot, which can thrive in cold, wet soil. Plants that appear to be under stress and have a brown base should be removed to prevent the spread of this fungal disease.