This month it’s a case of ‘steady as she goes’. Most of the tasks that you could do last month can still be done now. Temperatures are dropping further, the chance of a really warm spell is fading fast, while the odds are stacked in favour of high rainfall and the accompanying waterlogged soils.
The weather, as always, will dictate which tasks you should tackle and when. There’s no point trying to dig up and divide herbaceous perennials when to do so would wreak havoc on a soggy soil. A dry, warm, spell is best for any jobs which involve trampling the soil. If it’s relentlessly wet, busy yourself with planting up pots with spring flowering bulbs as you can never have enough injections of spring colour on standby.
The weather can also create jobs that need your immediate attention. Strong winds may dislodge a lot of leaves in one go and these should be raked up as soon as possible because a heavy carpet of sodden leaves will quickly damage anything underneath. Whilst raking the lawn you might want to consider hiring a scarifier, or lawn aerator, if the surface is particularly compacted or full of thatch. It’s amazing how much dead grass and moss will have built up over the year and getting it out now allows the lawn to ‘breathe’ again to cope better with the winter wet.
Before frost becomes a serious problem, get any tender plants, which have been bedded out in the garden, back into pots and ready for the greenhouse. Chief amongst these will be cannas and dahlias. The latter are traditionally left until the first frost has blackened their leaves but cannas are less keen on cutting it so fine. I have found that getting them potted up and under cover, before they are knocked sideways by really cold weather, means that they survive in a better state over winter.
In fact dahlias will still be flowering away, assuming you have kept on top of dead-heading, and are a real tonic when so many other plants in the mixed border are succumbing to the shorter days and cooler temperatures. The wonderful plumes of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’, growing to a height of over six feet every year, form a great backdrop in any border. I find Miscanthus invaluable at this time of year because they are just so God-damn handsome!
Going off on a bit of a tangent; I always use the online ‘RHS Plantfinder’ to check plant names and spellings if I’m in any doubt before committing them to the page. I have been gardening for so long, and in an increasingly isolated fashion, that taxonomy (“the art of fiddling with plant names to make we older gardeners look stupid when conversing with younger horticulturists”) changes can easily pass me by.
When looking up that Miscanthus, which I tend to shorten to ‘male parts’, I momentarily began to doubt my own sanity as it was suggested that it was known as ‘Eulalia’. In all the years that I have been growing that plant I have never known it as ‘Eulalia’. I remember buying my first specimen from John Coke (pronounced ‘cook’), of ‘Green Farm Plants’, while I was studying for my degree in horticulture—so it must have spent at least 25 years in my consciousness. I began to fear that the taxonomists had ‘got to it’ and changed it from ‘Miscanthus’ to ‘Eulalia’ for pure devilment. On closer inspection I realised that ‘Plantfinder’ was suggesting that the latter is its common name. Now I’m feeling paranoid that everyone else has been going around referring to Miscanthus as Eulalia, behind my back, but had never bothered to tell me…….this gardening business can be confusing sometimes!!!
Now is a good time to visit specialist tree and shrub nurseries if you are looking to add more autumn colour to your garden. Regular inspections, as autumn advances, will enable you to spot which species and varieties have the best autumn colour. This is especially important when looking at trees which are primarily grown for another feature, such as their flowers, but which also have a second string to their bow like autumn colour.
I chose to grow Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’ specifically because I once saw its larger than average, for a witch hazel, leaves put on a fabulous display of autumn colour in a nursery garden. It has orange ‘flowers’, more correctly ‘bracts’, in late winter, with a goodish scent, but looking at it in its autumn finery the scented flowers become the icing on the cake.
If I was choosing a witch hazel for flowers alone I’d tend to plump for a variety like ‘Arnold Promise’ which has been selected to have longer and paler bracts than the unimproved species. On the other hand, if scent was the main parameter then the straight species, Hamamelis mollis, is hard to beat.
If in doubt about such things then visiting a specialist nursery, even better if it’s local, will enable you to get advice directly from the nursery owner, or expert staff, to help you in your choice. Garden centre chains, especially those ‘shed’ type outlets, tend to only stock ‘bog standard’ plants and seldom have any expertise in horticultural matters so are only really any good for their ‘stack ‘em high, sell them cheap’ seasonal buys.
So, have a good gardening October and fingers crossed for a gentle, not too wet or windy, descent into winter with plenty of days pleasant enough to get out into the garden.