November is one of those months when gardening activity is largely dictated by the whims of the weather. In a ‘normal’ year it is the final chance for those activities which depend on the last vestiges of warmth and active root growth – such as moving trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials and the like. It is also the first chance to start those tasks which rely on the lack of plant growth and the onset of winter dormancy; pruning of roses, planting bare root stock, digging fallow soil.
Rose pruning is something which, as far as I am concerned, can wait a while longer as roses will only just be ‘slowing down’ and there is the whole winter still ahead of us. On tall specimens, especially those in exposed positions, it is a good idea to reduce the growth by about half to lessen the likelihood of ‘wind rock’ in autumnal gales. They can get their full prune towards the end of winter.
Recently I have been getting ‘stuck-in’ to a garden in Netherbury which is blessed with a huge variety of trees, shrubs and roses. Whilst musing, with the proud owner, on why I enjoy pruning so much I rather inadvisably blurted out that it was most satisfying to tackle those plants which are really ‘thug-like’ because it feels good to ‘teach them a lesson’!
The reality is that it’s the vigorous specimens which need to be kept in balance with their less brutish neighbours and pruning is one way to achieve this. For the record I count roses, especially the climbing varieties, as particularly ‘naughty’ and for that reason I show them no mercy; this is the secret to successful rose pruning.
It’s definitely chilly now so tender plants should be under cover with some frost protection. Use bubble-wrap fixed with special glazing clips, readily available from garden centres or online, to insulate the greenhouse so that additional heat input will only be necessary on the coldest nights. For those people fortunate enough to have a lovely wooden greenhouse, good old-fashioned drawing pins (remember them?) can be used in place of the glazing clips.
If you can run power to your greenhouse then a simple electric greenhouse heater, with a ‘frostguard’ setting, should protect your plants even when temperatures remain sub-zero for a prolonged period, as they did last winter. Paraffin heaters are a bit more temperamental plus they have the side affect of producing water vapour and carbon dioxide which can be a problem in a ‘bubble-wrapped’ greenhouse. They are, however, better than nothing where electricity is not available.
Most borderline hardy plants can survive a British winter as long as they are kept relatively dry. It’s the cold combined with winter wet which is their undoing so just being under cover, even without additional heat, is often enough.
Any specimens which I do not trust, even in the ‘frostguarded’ greenhouse, I bring indoors and leave on the few windowsills I possess. I have single-glazed windows, draughty floorboards and no central heating so they are not subjected to the tropical temperatures which most people expect in their homes these days – what’s wrong with putting on another jumper? It is, by the miracle of a ‘Rayburn’ left on its lowest setting, warm enough to keep a plant such as Sprekelia formosissima (Aztec Lily) just ticking over which is what it needs if it is to flower the following summer.
Looking ahead reminds me that now’s the time to plant tulips if you’ve been holding off, quite sensibly, to reduce the threat of ‘tulip fire’ (a nasty disease which is less prevalent in tulips planted as late as this). I’m always on the lookout for new containers for filling with bulbs as there never seems to be enough space in the garden proper. In the past, when working with a certain ‘thrifty’ presenter, I was tasked to check that wine boxes were widely available so that viewers with no gardens could copy her technique of raising vegetables. Our local brewer was less than helpful but, on a national scale, I was assured that they could be tracked down with a bit of ingenuity.
Imagine my delight when it turns out that a neighbour of my sister’s in Morcombelake has taken it upon herself to source them so now I don’t have to spend hours on the phone tracking them down – I can just get them from our brilliant Bridport market. Of course they won’t last forever as planters, wet soil and wood conspire to decay, but they look better as they age and they will last longer if lined with old compost bags, remembering to make drainage holes in both the polythene and the boxes. Alternatively don’t get them wet but use them stacked up to store all those bits and pieces that otherwise just swill around in the shed. While I think of it; filled with layers of damp sand they could be perfect for storing root vegetables for the winter…
Rather than getting carried away with ‘100 uses for a wooden wine crate’ I should be doing some of those mundane tasks which become necessary at this time of year. Collecting leaves from the lawn is one such chore. Even though the lawn will only require cutting in very mild weather, if at all, sometimes you can save yourself the bother of raking up leaves by running your lawnmower over it, at its highest setting, so that the mower shreds and collects the leaves for you. Not a good idea to do this on wet and soggy lawns, or if the leaves are inches thick, but a regular run over the lawn in dry weather should get the worst of them up. Corral them in chicken wire ‘cages’, in a hidden part of the garden, to rot down over time to make lovely leafmould.