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Monday, July 15, 2024
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GardeningOctober in the Garden

October in the Garden

All things being equal, now is the time that any last vestiges of summer turn into autumn and the change of season brings with it new opportunities. Cooling temperatures will elicit the appearance of autumn flowering bulbs, chiefly autumn crocus and colchicums, with their very welcome, spring-like, blooms. A gentle reminder that planting spring flowering bulbs should be in full swing and goes hand in hand with a good amount of garden ‘editing’.
Editing the borders makes the most of any remaining blooms and prevents the whole lot from becoming a brown ‘mush’, as the herbaceous constituents die-down completely. I used to subscribe, out of laziness more than anything else, to leaving all the border clearance until very late winter / early spring but now I compromise somewhere between the two extremes.
Use your common sense to determine which stems and seed-heads are sturdy enough to resist turning to mush and whose skeletal remains are worth leaving in the hope of achieving lovely frost effects. Add the collapsing herbaceous foliage to the compost heap but, as you are adding mostly non-green material at this time of year, a compost activator may be required to boost the breaking down process. Fresh leafy material is the best thing to add so layers of grass clippings between the dead stuff will help.
As the grass is growing more slowly now, and you shouldn’t be cutting it so short anyway, grass clippings may be in short supply. Growing an area of comfrey, which has big, nitrogen rich, leaves is one solution. I keep a patch of a purple flowered comfrey clone, usefully sterile, in a shady part of the garden solely for the purpose of adding to the compost heap. I chop the leaves off every time I need to speed up the compost heap and, during the growing season, they soon bounce back bigger and better than before. Peeing on the compost heap is another way of aiding the breakdown process, thanks to the nitrogen component of urine, but this may depend on where your compost heap is and how squeamish you are about such things!
Traditionally this is the time to make new beds and borders as practically every type of plant will move well at this time of year. Reshaping lawns is timely too as it’s still, just about, warm enough to sow new areas, during clement weather, and there’s usually enough dry weather to facilitate the laying of new turf. Attempting major planting, or remodelling, during very wet weather will result in a quagmire so keep everything on hand, to tackle the job, but be prepared to pause operations if common sense dictates that ‘discretion is the better part of valour’.
With frosts looming; sort out your greenhouse, windowsills, porch, or any other space you have, in readiness for the influx of plants which need to be kept frost-free over winter. These plants will also need to be checked over and gathered close to the house where they can be whipped indoors as soon as overnight frost is forecast. Tidy up these tender perennials and remove any damaged or diseased foliage so that they stand the best chance of surviving their time ‘ticking over’ during the cold weather.
Approaching cold weather does have some positive advantages for the garden especially when this change in season brings with it spectacular autumn colour. The best autumn colouring needs a good preceding growing season, which I think we have had, and a slow descent into cooler weather, without too much wind, to ensure that the leaves actually remain attached long enough for the autumn colour to develop. A sharpish frost, at the end of the initial cooling, can kick-start the colouring process so that the blaze of glory appears almost overnight in the best years.
The reason why the best autumn colour is reliant on deciduous plants having had a good summer is because the fiery reds, oranges and yellows, are the result of the breakdown processes acting upon the chemical compounds made during the vital, energy capturing, photosynthesis that plants do best during warm, sunny, weather. The better the growing season has been, the higher the concentration of these complex compounds, the more spectacular the autumnal fireworks will be.
Choosing specimens for autumn colour is, obviously, best carried out during this comparatively tiny window of opportunity – a wander around an established arboretum, ‘Westonbirt’ comes to mind, would be time well spent. Even better if you can find a tree nursery with a good choice of classic autumn colour species, maples being chief amongst these, so that you can pick out the best forms for your garden. It is a happy coincidence that now is a propitious time to plant such specimens and the upcoming months, November to March, are recommended for planting bare-root trees and hedging if you need to have something sent from a remote, specialist, nursery.
With the current trend for demonising the use of plastic, the usual ‘posturing’ response having turned a blind eye all these years, I think it’s safe to predict that we will rediscover some of the traditional horticultural practices that pre-date the invention of plastic plant pots. I’ve already noted some mail-order specialists making a fuss about sending out wallflowers in their naked, bare-root, state (personally I’ve always obtained mine from ‘Groves’) as opposed to plastic packaged plug plants or potted specimens. This is akin to ‘reinventing the wheel’ because it was only the convenience of plants being offered in plastic pots, a much more profitable commodity for suppliers and growers, that saw the demise of the, plastic pot free, bare-rooted offerings.
Plastic packaging is not the demon here. It is our constant desire for things to be ‘easy’, ‘long lasting’, ‘available on demand’ that has led us to using plastics as the mechanism for supplying our greed. A large amount of our convenience culture is only possible due to the widespread use of plastics. They protect practically every consumer product and foodstuff.
I almost feel sorry for plastics because they have served us well, perhaps too well, for practically a century and only now are we suddenly noticing that their very best attribute of being durable is actually a ticking time-bomb for our planet.
At least in gardening we can look back on what we were doing only a couple of generations ago and, just like returning to chemical-free horticulture, there were always plastic-free methods of growing and supplying plants. They may require more skill, timeliness and effort, than the plastic-potted approach, but they are not beyond the wit of man / woman / non-gender specific person.
Removing plastics from the supply chain of the rest of our, convenience driven, lives will not be so easy – but we only have ourselves to blame for that. Happy gardening !!!

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