With luck October can yield a good many days upon which gardening is positively joyful. Not so cold that you have to be cocooned in many layers of restrictive clothing and yet not so hot that any degree of physical activity brings on a sweat. There is a good chance, by now, that the soil is moist, from more frequent rainfall, without being wet to the point of saturation, which would put a stop to all tasks involving messing with the soil.
On the plant side of things it is the big old grasses which dominate in my garden. Stripy ‘Zebra Grass’ (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’) is a solid backdrop to various tall asters and other late flowering members of the daisy family. It’s fortunate that this grass is grown more for its bold yellow / green variegation than for its flowers, which I find are only produced in particularly favourable growing seasons.
Other Miscanthus produce great, airy-fairy, flowering plumes this month. The ‘flowers’ are really tassels, in a subtle range of colours, rather than conventional flowers which have brightly coloured petals in every colour imaginable. The palette includes rich, mahogany, red (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’), through shades of browns and golds to the silvery white tassels of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’.
If in doubt as to what to expect from Miscanthus, in all its many hues and sizes, then a quick internet search of the genus, choosing ‘Images’, will throw up a good sample to show just how useful these plants are to add form and structure to the post summer garden.
I have a few different varieties of this one species of grass. The ‘variety’ being identified by the name in single quotes. These will have been man-made ‘selections’, from all the slightly different plants raised from a batch of seeds, selecting an attribute, such as particularly deeply coloured tassels.
Once the selection has been made then all future plants must be produced by vegetative propagation, rather than by collecting seed, from your chosen example. Seed will always have some variation, in the population of plants raised from it, whereas vegetative propagation produces ‘clones’ so that each new plant raised this way will be a ‘carbon copy’—having the exact same coloured tassel, or particularly bold foliage, as the one you first picked out.
My Miscanthus seed around the garden and, in order that they don’t eventually take over from the ‘named’ varieties, these ‘mongrel’ offspring need to be weeded out. Having said that, if one does appear to have something special about then I tend to dig it up, carefully, and plant it in a pot to grow on to see whether it makes a good mature plant.
October is a good time to continue the sprucing up and titivating of mixed or herbaceous border and potting up any seedlings of plants which you’d like more of or for which there is a chance that the parent plant might perish in a very cold winter. I always lift some Verbena bonariensis. popping them into a cold frame, as an insurance policy against the winter being so bad that it wipes out the unprotected garden population. They’re always useful for plugging gaps at some point, or for adding height to container plantings, so they won’t go to waste.
Gently tidying borders to remove the worst of the decaying herbaceous foliage, without stripping them bare, will prepare them for the full onset of autumn and allow those plants which are still doing well to really shine. Dahlias will still be blazing, amongst the less exotic border plants, and will continue to do so, if dead-headed and propped up, until the first frosts. Plant spring flowering bulbs into any gaps which are revealed, marking the spot with a label so that you don’t dig them up by accident before they emerge.
If you don’t have room for spring flowering bulbs in your borders, or want a moveable feast of spring colour, plant them up in pots and containers. Add plenty of drainage to the bottom of the pot, coarse gravel will do, and use a 50:50 mix of loam based and multi-purpose compost on top of that. Add your chosen bulbs in layers with the largest at the bottom; the bigger the container the more bulbs you can cram in and the greater the mix of types for the longest succession of blooms. Try tulips at the bottom, daffodils in the middle layer and grape hyacinths on the top level. This will require a large, deep, pot but it will provide a spectacular firework display of spring colour.
Spring is still a little way off and before that there is the winter to contend with. I tend to think that the first frost marks the point of no return as far as the growing season is concerned. In the mild southwest it may not happen this month but it pays to be prepared for it by lifting tender perennials that you plan to overwinter, chop them back and pot them up, with a little fresh compost, in the smallest pots that their rootballs will fit into. They’ll need to be kept frost-free over winter so make room for them in the greenhouse, if you have one, or organise space on windowsills in an unheated spare room if bringing them into the house. The aim is to keep them ‘ticking over’, but not actively growing, so only minimal watering is required. The drier they can be kept the lower the temperature they can endure without succumbing to rot.
Apart from keeping on top of those tasks like clearing up fallen leaves, lifting and dividing perennials and autumn planting, there shouldn’t be a mad panic in your gardening schedule so make a point of enjoying your garden. Whenever there is a particularly good day or two take a leisurely look at what you’ve created and make plans for any major works which can only be completed over the winter. A garden is never ‘completed’, it is always a ‘work in progress’.