The good thing about November is that even though the days are short, and the clocks have gone back, the general pace of life in the garden is correspondingly slow. If it rains one day, or the whole week, then most jobs aren’t so time critical that they can’t wait for a break in the weather.
Deciduous trees and shrubs have either shed, or are in the process of shedding, their leaves and, for some, this process includes a display of autumn colour. This requires quite a specific set of circumstances to achieve an optimal display. Firstly; the summer has to have been good enough to have allowed the leaves to make a plentiful amount of carbohydrate (sugars). Secondly; the drop in overnight temperatures must be deep enough to induce the withdrawal of chlorophyll, whose green pigment obscures the underlying fiery tints, but also gentle enough to allow time for the breakdown of the leaf’s chemical compounds to occur before the leaf drops off; a tricky balancing act at the best of times.
If there are autumn gales immediately after a cold period then the leaves may get torn from the branches before their full potential for ‘colouring up’ has had time to happen. This is just one of the many pitfalls which, like so many events in the garden, is beyond the control of man and serves to remind us that gardening is all about manipulating nature but some elements will always remain out of our meddling reach.
For guaranteed ‘fireworks’ in the spring, November is the month for planting tulip bulbs. The reason for planting them relatively late, when the soil temperature is lower, is to limit their chances of being infected by the pathogen which leads to ‘tulip fire’. This disease distorts the foliage of infected tulips and the twisted, discoloured, leaves give the impression of having been scorched—hence its name. Anyway, infected bulbs must be destroyed, burning would be the most apt way of dealing with them, and no further tulips planted in the same ground in subsequent years.
Essential jobs for now include moving less than hardy, potted, plants under cover or, at least, right up against a south facing wall of the house. Even in the balmy ‘Marshwood Vale’ it would be foolhardy to expect borderline hardy plants to survive the winter in a really exposed spot. Fully tender plants will need to be in a greenhouse with some form of supplementary heating readied against the risk of sub-zero temperatures. If you haven’t done it already clean the glass to allow in maximum winter light and check that your supplementary heating is functioning. It’s prudent to prepare a secondary heat source, I keep a couple of those old ‘Aladdin’ paraffin heaters to hand, as a back-up in case the primary heat source, generally electric these days, fails.
Any plants that you bring in should be spruced up. Remove dead or damaged leaves and stems, cutting them cleanly with a knife or sharp secateurs. Don’t do any major ‘chopping back’ as the plants are winding down, in preparation for their winter torpor, so inflicting major surgery on them now could be disastrous. Keep them almost dry for the winter because that way they are more resistant to low temperatures. It’s winter wet which is the real killer, especially in the relatively mild, but damp, south-west.
You can start planting bare-root plants this month although, in tune with the slowness of the season, there’s no rush with this. Do it when the weather conditions are favourable and you’re in the mood. To make a proper job of planting takes time, especially if tree stakes, rabbit protection and mulching provisions are involved. Traditional herbaceous perennials can also be dug up, divided and replanted now. They are slightly more time sensitive because they cope better if tackled before the really cold weather sets in. If you miss this ‘window of opportunity’ then you’ll get another chance to divide them in early spring.
The arrival of proper overnight frosts is the signal that most ‘fiddling’ maintenance jobs can cease and you can concentrate on all the ‘hardcore’ winter stuff. However, whenever it is dry, but not frosty, you should continue cutting the lawn with the mower set to cut higher than in the summer. The grass won’t stop growing until average temperatures drop below something like 7°C and it will grow again, albeit slowly, whenever there’s a mild spell. Heavy leaf-falls should be raked off the lawn but, one of the bonuses of mowing whenever conditions allow, the mower will collect a light covering of fallen leaves, returning the sward to a pristine green state, without you having to break into a sweat.
Short grass is also perfect for showing off early spring bulbs. If you spot any bargain buckets of small, early flowering, spring bulbs, ‘Chrysanthus’ type crocus are ideal, they’d be worth risking despite the lateness of planting. As long as the bulbs are still intact, firm and not too sprouting they’ll be fine. Throw them randomly over the short grass and insert them beneath the turf, covered with twice their depth in soil, using a blade or sharp ended trowel. Even if a proportion of them fail, as long as you plant in generous swathes, you’ll still have a cheery display as early as February or March. Remember that you’ll have to leave the grass uncut for at least 6 weeks after flowering, to let the bulbs regenerate, so keep your naturalising to informal areas or the lawn margins.
Just knowing that you are doing something now to guarantee a little burst of colour in the spring helps to offset the fact that the coldest, darkest, days of winter are still ahead. That sounds a bit depressing but I don’t mean it to be—the garden needs a rest and so do we!