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Thursday, July 18, 2024
GardeningNovember in the Garden

November in the Garden

November is not the sparkliest month in the garden. There is a risk that a general browness and mushiness can get the upper hand if the balance between the dying down of herbaceous perennials and the more structural bones of the garden tips too far towards decay. Hopefully you will have had time to do a certain amount of judicious editing, of the earliest collapsing plants, and managed to trim evergreen hedges during September and October.
This month generally sees the majority of the deciduous trees and shrubs shedding their leaves, assuming it’s not been too wet and windy before now, so leaf collecting and composting is likely to be one of the key activities in most gardens—especially now that planting trees is a trendy thing to do once more.
Fallen leaves are largely made up of the, slower to decay, cellulose based structure of plants, with the faster composting nitrogenous compounds withdrawn before they are shed, and are therefore best composted in their own bins and not added to your general compost. I tend to make leaf composting bins out of chicken wire stapled to round posts driven into the ground. They are best placed in out of the way areas, they are not exactly decorative, preferably shaded and not too exposed to extremes of temperature. Collected leaves are placed in and wetted, if dry when raked up, with a compost accelerator added between every layer, a layer being four to six inches deep.
Commercial compost accelerators can be bought from garden centres but I generally just use good old ‘fish, blood and bone’ (see practically every other article I’ve ever written!) because it is the nitrogen content, lacking in brown leaves, which is required to feed the microbial activity at the heart of composting. If kept moist, under a covering old old carpet / sacking / a discarded duvet, the leaves should break down over the course of a year, longer for really large, tough, leaves, and produce the most wonderful leaf mould which is an excellent soil conditioner, once prized as a constituent of tailor made growing substrates for plants like orchids and ferns.
If you have no room for large, ugly, chicken wire bins full of decaying leaves then a system I’ve had some success with is the use of black bin liners to contain the fallen leaves. In this case I gather up the fallen leaves and wet them, while still on the ground, before sprinkling with ‘fish, blood and bone’ so that it sticks to the wet leaves. I then rake them into a large mound, attempting to mix them up a bit as I go, in readiness to stuff them, fairly densely, into the bin liners. Once stuffed full, tied at the neck, the bulging bags are stabbed with fork so that they are able to break down aerobically (in the presence of oxygen) rather than excluding air which is likely to ‘pickle’ your fallen leaves. When stabbing the bags I like to think of those army training films where a bunch of squaddies charge at straw stuffed sacking with bayonets attached—I think you get the picture. The stabbed bags should be tucked away, maybe you have a forgotten corner of the garden, where they can gently rot away unseen.
Talking about ‘rotting away unseen’, if you have left dubiously hardy plants, like dahlias, in the ground, until now, then they really should be lifted, all the top growth cut off, the tubers cleaned of wet soil and then stored, packed into wooden crates if you have them, somewhere frost-free (under the greenhouse benches is the traditional repository) until they come back into growth in the spring. It is possible to leave dahlias in the ground over winter, especially if they are mulched with a thick layer of compost, but it is a bit of a lottery as to whether the tubers will succumb to rotting, quite likely in a very wet winter, or be killed outright if we have a hard winter with extremely low temperatures. Leaving them in the ground also makes them very prone to being eaten, from the inside out, by ‘black keeled’ slugs, the same little blighters that ruin your potatoes if left in the ground for too long. Dahlias are really just potatoes for people on Instagram!
It’s practically a legal requirement, when writing about gardening in November, to mention that now is the best time to plant tulip bulbs, after all your other autumn planted bulbs have been planted, because they are left late for cultural reasons (reducing the risk of ‘tulip fire’). I remember reporting on trials, for ‘Gardening Which?’, where planting tulip bulbs was left really late, up to the end of December I think, and they still flowered successfully. For this reason it’s one of the few times that I might actually suggest that you look at for ‘bargain’ bulbs in supermarkets, garden centres and online with a good chance that they might actually still be a viable proposition. As per usual, only plant bulbs which are still firm, intact, of a good size, not mouldy and not too far advanced into growth (a little green tip may be visible, with roots just appearing, but they mustn’t practically flowering).
Another ‘traditional’ thing to mention right now is that the shedding of leaves, from deciduous trees and shrubs, signals their descent into winter dormancy and therefore heralds the beginning of the ‘bare root planting season’. There is no particular hurry when it comes to obtaining larger trees and shrubs, for bare root planting, as they are more tolerant of being planted at any time up to spring bud break. However, if you are planning to establish herbaceous plants from bare root stock, as it is cheaper and easier to acquire them this way, then time is more pressing because they are more successful when planted into soil that still retains some summer warmth.
If you receive bare root plants and planting conditions are not ideal, too wet or cold, then it’s a good idea to pot them up into potting compost as a temporary measure, keeping them alive, until planting conditions improve. Large plants can be ‘heeled’ into a spare bit of land, often where something else has already been lifted, simply by digging a hole, or trench, deep enough to cover the bare roots and then shovel the soil back and firm it over the roots with your heel. This is not a permanent planting but just a quick way of keeping your precious plants in suspended animation until they are planted properly, with more care and attention, once you have time and the weather on your side.
Hopefully this month there will be plenty of days when both time and the weather coalesce to provide perfect gardening opportunities.

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