As the number of plants in bloom reduces, the further into autumn we travel, the more we notice other, subtler, ways in which plants add colour to the garden. Autumn colour is chief amongst these now, although the equinoctial gales can play havoc with the longed for ‘show’, if the leaves are blasted from the boughs before fully colouring up.
Just now, my own Liquidambar trees are in deep red leaf (well, mostly ‘in leaf’). I have a pair planted next to each other. The straightforward ‘species’ (Liquidambar styraciflua) and the variety ‘Worplesdon’, the latter with supposedly more intense autumn hues (although they look pretty identical most years). I used to have a third variety in the row, it’s identity lost in the mists of time, but it succumbed to a tragic strimming tragedy while still an infant.
On a different tack, statuesque Miscanthus form a backdrop to many of my own planting schemes and large ‘island’ beds. Except for when they’ve been cut to the ground, in early spring, just before bursting back into life, there is hardly a month of the year in which these no-nonsense, giant, grasses are providing some sort of garden interest. During autumn, and into winter, they are at their boldest, crowned with tasselled plumes at their fullest and most dramatic.
In the recent windy weather the stands of Miscanthus in my field were truly magnificent, swaying and dancing to the tune of the gusts. They need some space around them to show off to their best but, as a full stop to a long garden, or as a ‘block’ within a wider one, they can be included even on a domestic garden scale.
I remember buying several different varieties, mostly with German names ‘back in the day’, when I was a Hort. student. Thirty years on, many divisions later, and the true ‘varieties’ have been diluted by spontaneously arriving seedling ‘crosses’. I’m not sure this matters ‘en masse’ but it does mean that, if I have a particularly nicely coloured example, perhaps with deeply coloured tassels, I’ve no idea if it was a named variety, that I bought, or a chance seedling of my own. At the end of the day a ‘good plant’ is a ‘good plant’ I guess.
In complete contrast, to the muted palette of grasses, now’s the time to turn your attention to planting the spring firework display that tulips provide. This should complete your autumn bulb planting—tulips being traditionally planted after all other types of spring flowering bulbs as a means of avoiding the fungal infection know as ‘tulip fire’.
If you moved your tender plants into a sheltered spot last month, now’s the time to make their final move into a frost-free place—such as a greenhouse with a ‘frost-guard’ heater on hand. Fully tender plants need to have some form of supplementary heating readied against the risk of sub-zero temperatures. If you haven’t done it already, thoroughly clean your chosen ‘overwintering’ area, cleaning the glass to maximise the weaker winter light.
Equally, any plants that you bring in should be spruced up by removing any dead, or damaged, bits with a sharp knife. Don’t do any major ‘chopping back’ as the plants are winding down, preparing for winter torpor, so inflicting major surgery on them now could be disastrous. Keep them almost dry, for the winter, because that way they are better able to survive low temperatures; it’s winter wet which is the real killer, rather than cold alone.
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—for you and the task in hand. 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, compared to getting bare-root specimens planted, because they cope better if tackled before the really cold weather sets in. If you miss this window of opportunity, before the onset of ‘proper’ winter, then you’ll get another chance to divide them in early spring.
If you chance upon any discounted packets of early-flowering, spring bulbs, they’d be worth risking despite the lateness of planting. If the bulbs are still intact, firm, and not too sprouting, they’ll be fine. Don’t use them in prime positions where an erratic performance would be a source of annoyance. I’d be inclined to plant them thickly in pots of fresh compost, to give them the best chance of surviving, and keep them ‘on standby’ to plant into the garden, or naturalise in rough grass, if they prove viable.
I say ‘rough’ grass because you’ll have to leave the grass uncut, for at least 6 weeks, after flowering, to let the bulbs regenerate. This can make a real mess of a ‘fine’ lawn. Having said that, if you keep the grass short, in the run up to bulb emergence, the rapid bulb growth and flowering will keep ahead of the grass even though you’ll have to stop cutting it.
The tyranny of regular grass cutting is something I am happy to do without. It seems the grass seldom stops growing, these days, even over winter. At least, currently, it’s far too wet to risk cutting my own lawn areas which are, in reality, simply the bits of meadow closest to the house. I tend to design by necessity rather than by contrivance. It seems the most ‘honest’ way to deal with garden space and ‘honesty is always the best policy’!