November in the Garden

It’s always rather pleasing when a prediction comes true. Earlier in the year it looked like everything was in place for a bumper harvest from fruit trees, apples in particular, and that’s exactly what’s happened—I’ve even heard it being discussed on Radio 4. The only fly in the ointment was the summer drought could have jeopardised the harvest, and it must have had some effect on fruit size, but mature trees seem to have been able to deal with the stress and hold onto their fruit in abundance. The hot temperatures and extra hours of sunshine have also resulted in an even tastier crop than usual, a ‘vintage’ year in many respects.
Now that we are well into autumn there could be some other effects of the summer drought that begin to show up. Last month I mentioned that autumn colour should be enhanced due to the higher levels of photosynthesis crucial compounds built up in sun blessed foliage, another positive effect of the good summer, but there could be downsides too. Over-mature trees, trees and shrubs which are already succumbing to disease and plants which are not yet fully established could suffer from drought induced loss of limbs or even death of the whole specimen. It’s worth taking a good look at your garden at this time of year to spot early signs that any of your trees or shrubs may be suffering in such a way because the upcoming winter months, when deciduous plants are dormant, are when any major tree work needs to take place.
Dead or diseased parts of trees and shrubs will show up as the plant begins to shed its leaves because the poorly parts will tend to lose their foliage first and any change in leaf colour, not all deciduous plants produce autumn colour, will tend to be exhibited in the most stressed specimens, or parts of the plant, first. General pruning of small trees and shrubs is possible with standard pruning saws, loppers and small chainsaws, if you are confident in using such machinery. I still swear by my cordless ‘mini chainsaw’ which can tackle surprisingly thick branches, within reason, and is much easier to wield than even the smallest petrol machine.
If any major tree surgery or felling is required, having spotted serious signs of death or disease this autumn, then contacting qualified tree surgeons, in order to receive at least a couple of quotes for any work required, should be a priority because competent tree surgeons are bound to be busy this winter if the summer drought has had the kind of effects predicted.
At this point it’s worth mentioning again the serious problem of ‘Ash Dieback Disease’. Ash trees are not common in domestic sized gardens, they are not generally recommended as suitable for ornamental use due to their potential massive size. Having said that, mature specimens are prodigious self-seeders so if there is a large ash tree in your vicinity, possibly as a ‘sentinel’ in a nearby hedgerow, there is a good chance that a seedling ash tree could get established in your garden even if you did not plant it yourself. Such seedlings grow quickly and, especially if it was already there when you bought your house, it’s easy for them to be left by the unsuspecting home owner until they are fully grown trees. If such a mature ash is exhibiting signs of ‘Ash Dieback’ then now’s the time to call in the professionals (search the internet for plenty of resources relating to this disease—e.g. “ash dieback latest advice”).
Other tree species have their own problems which may have been exacerbated by being drought stressed this summer so keep an eye on any tree or large shrub which could potentially cause a problem if it was to lose limbs, or get blown over, during autumn and winter storms. I remember, decades ago, working on an estate which had a long avenue of ‘Sweet Chestnut’ (Castanea sativa) trees which would habitually shed whole, massive, limbs simply because that was their habit in old age. This was well before any report of the introduction of ‘Sweet Chestnut Blight’ which is the chestnut’s equivalent (not the same pathogen) of ‘Ash Dieback’ and potentially just as serious : according to the ‘Forest Research’ website it has “…..almost wiped out North America’s sweet chestnut population”. It has been present in the UK since at least 2011, around the same time that ‘Ash Dieback’ first hit the headlines, and is probably only less well known due to the relatively lower abundance of sweet chestnut trees in our landscape.
Anyway, after all that talk of ‘death and disease’ it’s worth remembering that autumn is actually a good time of year for establishing a lot of new, exciting, plants in your garden. Of course planting spring flowering bulbs can still be undertaken and November is traditionally the best time for planting tulips—later than all the other autumn planted species. It’s the beginning of the ‘bare root’ planting period, which is generally any time between leaf fall and new leaf emergence, so woody plants which are suited to being established this way can at least be ordered now even if actual dispatch and planting won’t happen until the winter months.
Similarly there’s still a little time, probably until we start to get overnight frosts, to lift, divide, replant or pot up those herbaceous beauties which are clump forming and which have now died down / been chopped back while tidying the borders. There are some border stalwarts, such as those members of the daisy generally referred to as ‘Michaelmas Daisies’, or ‘Asters’ of old, that may still be providing a show and are therefore left standing amongst those more structural inhabitants of the mixed border including statuesque perennial grasses, chiefly various Miscanthus selections with their showy flower plumes.
Finally, now that there is a good chance of freezing or near freezing overnight temperatures, any tender plants need to be lifted from their summer positions, if, like dahlias, they were planted out in beds or containers, and potted up, where necessary, to be overwintered in a frost-free place. If that frost-free place is a greenhouse then it’s a good idea to check that whatever supplementary heating is in place, to guard against frost, is correctly set up and working. Given the cost of energy these days it is even more essential than usual to insulate your greenhouse, coldframe etc., remembering that adding material such as ‘bubblewrap’ will also cut down the light levels and will have implications for air circulation: it’s all ‘swings and roundabouts’ in the world of gardening.