“Season of mellow fruitfulness, close bosom friend of the maturing sun, conspiring with him how to load and bless and fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.”
I originally used that opening, for this October’s article, a decade ago. It’s a good reminder that not a lot changes, when it comes to growing and harvesting stuff, as those words, by Keats, stare down from an ‘Arts and Crafts’ Sunday school poster, which must be getting on for 125 years old.
Gardening has been a constant in my life since I was a small child. Sometimes it is a rock to cling to, when all else is turmoil, sometimes it is a weight around my neck, threatening to drag me down further, when other external influences are already weighing heavy on my mind.
I guess that that’s the downside of having what is merely a ‘hobby’, for others, as both a passion and a means of earning a living for myself. If gardening for ‘pay and pleasure’, there’s an added pain when Mother Nature, relentlessly churning her seasons, dictates that tasks need doing just when you don’t have the will or ability to get on with them.
Lately, I’ve been working in a new garden which was laid out relatively recently by a high-end garden designer. I’m used to seeing such gardens when they are mere ‘show’ exhibits—working with one which exists in ‘reality’ is something of a learning curve.
Such gardens are usually ‘over planted’, when first laid out, because a client that is paying thousands of pounds for a new garden expects to have at least something to see from the very start. It’s somewhere between the complete ‘fantasy’ of a show garden and the relative paucity of a ‘normal’ garden.
Now, as herbaceous plants begin to die down, there can be a feeling of doom and gloom hanging around the borders. My job, especially in a garden which I am looking after for someone else, is to try and ‘edit’ out the worst of the collapsed foliage and decaying mush.
In truth, gardening is largely a process of choreographing nature. Intervening, to remove anything too unsightly, is part of that manipulation. The horticultural skill, which only comes with time and experience, is to know how much intervention is necessary, to keep the ‘show on the road’, without detrimentally affecting the plants under your care. There’s a fine line between ‘reining in’ a bully of a herbaceous thug and completely killing it.
For example, the very useful ‘Bugle’ (Ajuga reptans), in its various bronze leaved forms, is excellent ground cover but, it may be obvious right now if you analyse your own garden, it can be an invasive thug. In the scheme I’m thinking of now, the Bugle has been romping around and trampling all over the, much slower to establish, lavender plants which are required to grow up into a ‘mesh’ of short, silvery, hedges outlining the design.
To restore horticultural balance, I have had to dig out a large proportion of the Bugle in order to release the tiny lavender plants from its smothering embrace. I now have scores of new Bugle offsets to pot up and replant in the woodland areas of the garden where it can roam around, unfettered, without doing any harm.
Back to the month in hand; lawns can be repaired with turf or, if the weather is suitably clement, a late sowing of lawn seed. Existing lawns can be cut less often and the grass left a little longer so that they are less likely to be damaged in wet weather. Mowing also has the added bonus of removing the odd fallen leaf (assuming you have a mower that collects the clippings). With luck the mass autumn leaf drop is still a little time away.
Tender perennials and dubiously hardy border plants, like cannas, should be brought under cover towards the end of the month when the risk of overnight frost becomes too great. Cannas need to be kept in large pots, or boxes, of barely moist compost in a light but frost free place. If it never gets really cold, they may well stay in leaf all winter. Dahlias will probably stay outside until next month because it’s traditional to let them get blackened by the first frost before digging them up to store over winter.
Don’t forget to keep on planting bulbs for spring flowering. Hold off planting tulips until next month because, and it’s worth saying again, they are less likely to be affected by ‘tulip fire’ (a nasty fungal disease). I’m not sure why this is, considering the spores are spread by rain splashing on infected leaves, but that is the received wisdom. I’m happy to go along with it because there are more than enough other species which really do need to be planted now or never (I’m always behind with bulb planting but have learned to be a bit more relaxed about it).
Alas, we’ve already missed the boat for winter flowering types and those which have very small, easily desiccated, perennating organs (root, tuber, rhizome, bulb, or corm) but don’t worry—there’s always next year.
Of course, if you had them delivered but didn’t plant them, bung them into pots of fresh multipurpose compost NOW and the chances are they’ll burst into life if they’re not too far gone. Even if they don’t flower properly this season at least they’ll get a chance to grow foliage, you can feed them gently while in leaf, which should ensure that they will build up enough stored energy to flower successfully next year—which is their simple aim in life.
That is one of the most positive things about gardening; no matter how nasty external forces may become in your own life, plants are non-judgmental and fundamentally honest in all they do. If only Human Society was similarly trustworthy!