From planting alliums to ordering fruit trees, from planning spring bulbs to storing your squashes – there’s no sign that the garden is slowing down.
Certainly the nights may be drawing in, and October will see the clocks going back and the first frosts in colder parts of the country but there’s still a busy ‘to-do’ list. Gardening time might feel curtailed by the shorter sunlight, but the days are often glorious, with the autumn colour a counterpoint to the light tipping away.
Don’t panic if the frosts arrive early
If you get an early frost, cannas and dahlias will be fine in the ground for a bit, even if their tops are browned. Many people leave them in the ground and mulch heavily, and they are happy for four or five years even in cold gardens if the mulch is deep enough. Once they show signs of losing vigour, it is time to divide and re-propagate, and in these years the old tubers will be lifted, stored in just-damp compost under frost-free cover, and divided or used for cuttings come next spring.
Plan now for spring colour
Spring and autumn are two of the most industrious times of the year and it is well 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 10s and multiples of 10 for a generous effect in pots. Think 100s if you are planting in grass, and look into the right varieties.
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.
An early start to planting
October is the start of the planting season, and material planted now will benefit from the months ahead to get roots in. Be wary of planting evergreens in exposed sites, however, as they are prone to drying out in winter winds. If you are prepared to water in winter, so much the better and get them in too.
Time to come indoors
The next few weeks will be the time to 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.
Time for some cutbacks
Geraniums, persicaria and the likes of achillea can be cut back hard, lifted with a fork and teased apart. Reuse only the healthiest, outer growth and discard the oldest material on to the compost heap. With warmth still in the ground, the roots will take hold before winter sets in.
Turn to ash
If you have a bonfire to get rid of all of your accumulated allotment prunings and debris, make use of the potash-rich ash. Any ash that is pure wood – no coal or smokeless fuel – is useful on the plot. When it is cool scatter it around the roots of fruit trees and bushes for great flowering and fruiting next year.
Time to get out the rake
To make the most of the moment let autumn foliage lie where you can. Beware of build-up on precious lawns and rake them free to prevent browning off of the grass. If you want to instil order without breaking your back, keep paths and terraces free for the contrast of order. An autumn feed to stimulate root growth is worth applying on lawns that get a lot of wear in the summer.
Looking after your squashes
Pumpkin and gourds can be harvested now and moved into a dry position to prevent them from rotting. Pick windfall apples for cooking and twist those on the tree half a turn to see if they’re ripe. If so, they’ll come away with a satisfying snap. The unblemished ones can be stored in a cool shed to last into the winter months. Hoarding is a good feeling that must be locked in to our DNA, for there is nothing like providing for the future. In the warmth of a kitchen they may not last long, so keep them in a cool shed or porch and you will be eating them until spring.
Acid test for trimmings
Pine needles and conifer hedge trimmings take much longer to break down than other leaves, and it’s not a bad idea to make them a separate bin, so that you don’t get spiked when reaching into your compost’s depths. After two or three years they will break down to an acidic leaf mould perfect for use around ericaceous plants such as blueberries, azaleas and rhododendrons.
- An application of lime can help unlock nutrients in your vegetable plot soil. Sprinkle it over bare ground now: it will have an effect on new growth in spring, but you won’t risk damaging young growth.
- Dig up big old clumps of rhubarb and divide into pieces using a sharp spade, making sure that each division contains a piece of root and a shoot, then discard the old centre.
- Lift gladioli corms as foliage turns brown. Break off the foliage and store in a cool and frost-free spot. In warmer areas you can get away with just covering them with thick mulch.
- Plant clematis, giving them a chance to establish their roots in cool, moist soil before they are required to perform.
- Sweet peas can be sown into pots to over-winter in a sheltered position or a frame.