November in the Garden

Fall landscape with autumn linden tree and golden leaves on the ground

As I write this, late as ever (sorry Ed), we’ve been enjoying a remarkably calm and dry spell of weather which has allowed normal gardening to carry on—so there’s no excuse to be behind on all the autumnal jobs that need doing.
Of course dry weather, with clear skies at night, does mean that temperatures overnight plummet necessitating an early deployment of the greenhouse heater. Initially this is set to a 7°C minimum, so that the late cuttings I’ve taken, and the recently repotted tender plants, do not suffer a check in growth which could allow rot to set in. The minimum temperature can be lowered to a ‘frostguard’ setting during the winter proper so that plants in the greenhouse just ‘tick-over’ but are practically dormant.
Deciduous trees and shrubs have either shed, or are in the process of shedding, their leaves. In a good year this will be accompanied by a blaze of colour as the breakdown of vital, energy capturing, green chlorophyll leads to leaves revealing their underlying hues of red, orange and yellow.
It requires quite a specific set of circumstances to achieve optimal autumn colour. Firstly; the summer has to have been good enough to have allowed the leaves to make a plentiful amount of carbohydrate. Secondly; the drop in overnight temperatures must be severe enough to start the withdrawal of chlorophyll but also gentle enough so that the leaves remain on the trees for a while longer. If there are autumn gales, immediately after a frosty period, then the potential autumn colour gets ripped off the branches before it has a chance to be admired. There’s not really a lot you can do about that!
For guaranteed ‘fireworks’ in the spring, November is the month for planting tulip bulbs. The reason for planting them relatively late, as mentioned last month (and every year), is to limit their chances of being infected by the pathogen which leads to ‘tulip fire’. This late in the season it may be possible to find ‘bargain bulbs’ in the garden centres. These will generally still be sound, as long as they’ve been stored in a relatively airy and stable atmosphere, but it becomes even more important to check that they are firm and rot free before parting with your cash. Of course tulips will be fine although they may have started sprouting in their packs. This isn’t a problem as long as you are careful not to break off their tiny ‘noses’ when you plant them.
Last year I planted up hundreds of bulbs in containers for a big display at the front of my house. As always I planted layers of different bulbs for a succession of interest and then topped the pots with primroses, double daisies, violas and good old trailing ivy. I tidied them up after flowering and moved them ‘out of sight’ to rest over the summer. They have survived so well, with the trailing ivy growing impressively long, that I shall just wheel them out again for this winter / spring.
I’ll ‘top-up’ the bedding plant layer, where the violas have exhausted themselves and the daisies have given up the ghost but, apart from a prophylactic dousing with ‘Provado’ (vine weevils will become a real problem in pots otherwise), that’s about it. I kept them fed and watered last season, while in growth, so the bulbs should be fine to perform again although, unlike brand new bulbs, their flowering potential is not guaranteed. For risk free displays you must use fresh bulbs each year as they have been produced with one aim in life; to flower their socks off.
Essential jobs for now include moving less than hardy, potted, plants under cover. Any plants that you bring in should be spruced up. Remove dead or damaged leaves and stems, cutting 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. Before that happens, and whenever it is dry but not frosty, you should continue cutting the lawn but with your mower set higher than in the summer.  The grass won’t be growing much but the whole point of a lawn is to act as a good, green, foil to the surrounding plants and you’ll notice the contrast more markedly as the borders gently fade into muted tones of brown.
To keep the lawn looking green at this time of year will also involve a fair amount of raking of fallen leaves. Light deposits can be ‘hoovered’ up with the lawnmower (assuming it’s the collecting sort!) but otherwise regular raking with a wide, plastic tined, lawn rake keeps you and the lawn nice and fit. After all that exertion you can reward yourself, and your neighbours, with that autumnal treat—a lovely slow burning, languidly smoking, leaf-scented bonfire 😉