Keep the plot ticking over

Enjoy a rest but there are still a few jobs to give you your gardening fix!

The year is on the wane, and things start slowing down now. You’re probably looking forward to a bit of a break from too much hefty work now it’s winter on the plot, and you deserve it – we know how hard GN readers work and it’s good to get some Christmas down time!

However, it’s a good time to potter about and keep an eye on everything, while carrying out a few odd jobs to tick things over.

If you’ve not already done so, and you tend to dig over your plot in winter, get the fork out now, loosening clods which will then be broken down by impending frosts. This will improve structure. Clear old plant debris, check over your tools and check for any crop damage, too.

Any areas you’re not using can be covered, saving you time and effort weeding until you need the space. Organic mulches will help feed your plot as well as obstruct many weeds. A plastic mulch or weed membrane over the top, however, will keep all weeds out, and keep soil relatively warm so you can use it earlier in spring.

Spruce up hanging baskets

Bring winter colour and cheer to your garden.

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There’s no excuse not to have lots of instant colour and form in winter – get those hanging baskets into action for a new season, and you’ll add winter cheer aplenty.

Remove all the old plant debris and consider what you want to show in them. An important thing to consider is where they’ll be placed – in exposed rainy spots dainty bedding such as violas or pansies may simply get battered, and you may wish to try more robust plants such as mini shrubs, ferns, grasses or ornamental cabbages for colour.

Use bright whites, yellows and pinks if you’re using bedding for optimum impact, varying up the planting with heathers, trailing ivy and some small bulbs such as crocus and iris, which will pop up in early spring to surprise you.

The beauty of winter baskets is they’re much less work than summer baskets, generally needing less food and water or deadheading. Plus they’ll last for longer, with more robust plants for four months or more into March, when you can give them another makeover.

Houseplant care in winter

Keep them lush with the right light, heat and nutrition.

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It’s great to see the recent surge in the popularity for growing house plants. Not only do they have a decorative effect and bring colour and interest into a room, house plants, especially foliage plants, help to improve air quality. Most plants will grow happily indoors all year round, but during the winter months when the days are much shorter, growth will be slower. Indoor temperatures tend to be warmer these days with central heating and efficient double glazing. In one way this is good for the plants and keeps them actively growing, but poor light conditions can sometimes mean that leaves and growth become drawn and leggy.

To keep your houseplants healthy and growing through the winter months, always try and position them in as light a position as possible, but at the same time avoid cold windowsills and draughts. Plants still need watering, but not as much as during the summer months. Aim to keep the compost just moist at all times but not wet. More plants are killed by over-watering than under-watering! In a warm room where the air is dry plants can suffer and develop brown tips to the leaves, so if possible, mist the foliage occasionally or stand the pots on a tray of pebbles to create humid conditions.

Plant some unusual berried bushes

Try something new and you and the birds can enjoy a feast!

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There are some beautiful ornamental berried bushes that you can get in the garden now, which will benefit your plot’s birdlife, but why not plant some more berries just for you? You may have blueberries and currants already, so it’s time to try something different.

Your best bet is searching all the very best online fruit nurseries such as Chris Bowers and Sons, Blackmoor Nurseries, Ken Muir, Thompson and Morgan and of course, Lubera, which specialises in unusual fruit plants. At this time of year they have fruit tree and bush offers, bundled together as a deal for you to save money. Being planted here is an aronia, a beautiful bush with spring and summer flowers, tasty berries in autumn along with brilliant red leaves before they fall. It’s a good pot specimen or it makes an excellent deciduous hedge plant. It copes with most soils, even a little acidic.

Ensure you go for a loam-based compost if growing in pots, and add a handful of bonemeal as a slow-release fertiliser to encourage good rooting in pots or the ground. Ensure your new berried shrubs are never wanting water, and when spring comes, use a liquid fertiliser such as a tomato feed to boost flower and fruit growth.

Feed the birds

You’ll soon attract lots of feathered friends to your plot.

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During autumn there is usually plenty of natural food around for birds the garden in the form of seeds, insects and berries on trees. As the weather gradually gets cooler and natural food is used up, it’s a good idea to start feeding the birds to make sure they have a regular supply of nutritious food. It is during the cold winter months when the days are short and the nights long that birds really benefit from being fed, especially as they use a great deal of energy just keeping warm. Different species of birds eat different types of foods, so it’s important to put out a selection of bird food to cater for their needs. Sparrows and finches eat mainly seeds, the tit family like a high fat diet such as peanuts and fat balls, and robins, thrushes and blackbirds like fruit and worms.  Many birds such as the tiny wren also eat insects, but when these are in short supply they will feed on mealworms, chopped suet and sunflower hearts.

During the winter it’s important to feed on a regular basis. Feeders should be topped up as needed and if you use a bird table, feed daily, or better still morning or late afternoon. Once word gets around, you’ll soon have all sorts of birds visiting your garden!

Prepare your garden for winter

A few simple measures now will keep your items safe.

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As we get towards the end of November it signals a change from autumn into winter. This year we’ve had a good autumn with plenty of sunshine and fairly mild temperatures, but this can all change once we get into December, when temperatures start to drop. Before the weather turns, it’s important that we put away or protect things in the garden that could be damaged by the weather.

If we do get a big freeze it’s important that outside taps are made safe. Ideally, they should be turned off at the stop-cock and turned back on when needed. Taps and exposed pipes should also be lagged to prevent them from freezing with several layers of bubble polythene or by using foam pipe insulators and tap covers.  Hose pipes can be stored in a shed and especially the plastic sprayer attachments which are prone to cracking in frosty weather.

Garden furniture not being used over winter can be covered over with a waterproof sheet or brought under cover to keep it dry. This prevents green moulds developing and prolongs its life. And finally, batten down the hatches! Make sure doors on sheds and garden stores are fastened to. A simple bolt or padlock keeps them secure, and stops them from blowing open on windy nights, damaging the door and hinges. 

Cut back asparagus

Don’t leave stems to collapse and provide a home for slugs!

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The taste of home-grown asparagus spears cut from the garden and cooked straight away is just wonderful and well worth the effort that goes into keeping the bed healthy and productive.

The harvesting season for asparagus is fairly short, from around the third week in April (traditionally St George’s Day, April 23) to June 21, the longest day. During this time the spears are cut every few days as they grow quickly in warm, moist weather. Once cutting stops, the spears are allowed to grow and develop into tall, feathery, ferny foliage. This is essential to help the plants build up energy and develop a strong root system, known as the crown, for the following season. In late autumn the dark green foliage starts to turn a butter-yellow as it naturally dies down for winter. When this occurs, the tall growth can be cut down and cleared to prepare the bed for winter.

If not cut and removed, it’ll simply collapse and rot down and provide a perfect hiding place for slugs, which love the new shoots as they push through in spring. Clearing the bed and leaving it exposed over winter will help to reduce slug damage and also give you the chance to control weeds that have grown over the autumn months.

Give your roses TLC now

They’ll need a prune and a well-earned rest!

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Although we think of roses as summer flowering plants, they will often continue to bloom well into autumn. In mild areas or sheltered gardens, it’s not unheard of for a rose to be in bloom at Christmas time!

In late autumn we should carry out some light pruning to tidy up our roses, whether bush or climbers, to stop them from flowering and to prepare them for winter. When a plant has been in flower, on and off since June it uses a lot of energy and in the case of roses that are deciduous they need their dormant period to have a well-earned rest.

Roses are definitely one of those plants that we can put to bed for winter and that starts now by giving them a light prune, if you’ve not already done it. By trimming down flowering stems by one-third to half it instantly stops the rose from growing and trying to flower. Removing the top growth also reduces possible wind rock in the winter that can loosen the roots and cause the plant to lean over.At the same time, we can also check climbing and rambling roses to make sure they’re securely tied to the support, and start the war on rose diseases by collecting infected foliage to help minimise spread next year.

Prepare your pond for winter

Carry out maintenance now.

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Winter pond care is vital to the ongoing health of your pond, whether it’s a wildlife one or a fish pond. Now’s the ideal time to get going on maintenance as your pond will be shutting down for the winter, with any animals in hibernation and plants going dormant. This way there’ll be less impact on the pond.

If all your trees’ leaves have fallen now, remove any nets from the pond and clear away dead foliage.  Clear away dead plant stems – an exception is any gunnera plants you have next to the pond – their leaves protect them from frost over winter.

By keeping your pond pump running, if you have one, at a lower pace over winter, then it will keep the surface of the water rippling, which may reduce the chance of it freezing over. Frozen surfaces reduce oxygen levels to the pond.

If you wish to clean your pond, prepare a holding tank for fish and other organisms as you drain the water. Remove plants and trim back and divide if necessary. Clean the pond liner and remove three quarters of the silt, replacing the rest once you’ve finished. Replace with rainwater and put back the plants. It may take a little while for the pond to return to normal.

Clear snow as it comes, and trim back overhanging branches surrounding the pond, which may be restricting light.

Prune quince

Creating a neat and open framework will ensure a good fruit crop.

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Once you’ve picked all your fruit from your quince trees, it’s time to think about the health of your tree. After about four years of growth onwards, it’s only really necessary to lightly prune your quince, which you can do now. These fabulously fragrant heirloom fruit trees usually stay as medium-sized trees, sometimes grown on dwarfing rootstock to keep them more compact. However, they can put on lots of vigorous top growth during the season if they’re happy and settled and the weather’s good.

For good fruiting, thin out the canopy a little to allow for extra light and air to circulate among the fruiting branches. Crossing, damaged, weak and vigorous top growth can all be trimmed back so that the branch framework is neat and open. Plus extraneous branches that aren’t needed like suckers and trunk growth can be rubbed off – they only divert energy away from the business end of the tree.

If you’re planning on planting a new quince tree, buy from a good quality supplier such as specialist fruit bush and tree grower Keepers Nursery in Kent. They offer 15 varieties of quince, but they recommend a select few such as ‘Meeches Prolific’, a very reliable cropper, and Iranian ‘Isfahan’, a tree with very sweet fruit that can actually be eaten uncooked – the pineapple flavour and rich flesh is a real treat. Visit www.keepers-nursery.co.uk or call 01622 326465 for more details.

Lift and store dahlias

Make sure they’ll be protected over winter.

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Dahlias have grown very well this year and produced masses of colourful and attractive flowers. They started to flower in late summer and because of the sunny, mild autumn they continued to bloom up to the end of October when the weather turned much colder.

Dahlias originate from Mexico and are not hardy. They grow from a fleshy root tuber and naturally die down in winter and re-grow the following spring.  Traditionally, dahlia tubers were always lifted in autumn and stored for the following spring when they were either re-planted into the ground or started into growth in large pots to provide new cuttings. In well-drained soils and mild areas, the tubers will often survive the winter, but in cold districts or wet, clay soils it’s best to lift them now, before winter really sets in. A few frosts at this time of the year will blacken the stems and foliage, but it won’t harm the fleshy tubers in the soil. This frost damage does, however, serve as a timely reminder to deal with your dahlias.

If you’re debating whether or not to lift your tubers, one more thing to bear in mind is very often when left in the soil over winter, new shoots in spring are often attacked by slugs, which sets back growth.

Give a tree a head start

Come spring it will grow faster thanks to new roots.

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Although trees can be planted at various times of the year, November is the ideal time for both container-grown and bare-root trees. The reason is because in autumn the soil is moist and warm, despite the air temperatures being cool. Although trees are going into their winter dormancy, roots will continue to grow, meaning a tree planted now will start to make new roots over the winter. One of the main advantages of autumn planting is that in spring the tree will grow away faster because its roots are already growing. Autumn planted trees are also more drought tolerant in their first season because they have a head start.  

When planting any tree, ground preparation is important. This means cultivating the area thoroughly to break up hard layers and lumps. When it comes to the shape of the hole there are various thoughts, with some preferring a round hole and others a square hole. In good, well drained sandy or loamy soil a round hole is fine, but in heavy clay soil square holes have proven to work better, especially if the sides of the hole are roughed up with a fork to allow better root penetration. What is important is the hole should be at least twice the width of the root ball and plenty deep enough.

Take hardwood cuttings

It’s an effective way to get soft fruit bushes for free.

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Hardwood cuttings taken in November is a very simple and effective way to produce new soft fruit bushes such as black, red and whitecurrants, and gooseberries. Cuttings taken now will root over the winter and next spring the dormant buds will come to life and produces new shoots to form a young bush. From taking the cutting to having a new bush to plant into the garden takes one year and the percentage of cuttings that root is usually very high.

To take cuttings from your fruit bushes you need to select this season’s new growth and the plants need to be healthy and vigorous. Never take cuttings from weak or diseases plants.

The stems are trimmed to length and are simply inserted into a prepared area of the garden or you can root them in pots in a cold frame. No heat is needed at all and the cuttings will sit happily outside in the garden.

To help a good root system form, preparing the soil by forking it over and mix in some well-rotted garden compost, but do not apply any fertiliser. In pots, use a well-drained multipurpose compost as a growing media.

As well as fruit bushes, many ornamental shrubs such as buddleja, forsythia, spiraea, deutzia and weigela can also be propagated now by hardwood cuttings.   

Create a greenhouse display

Providing just a little heat is all that’s needed.

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A greenhouse is a real asset in the garden and provides you with a place to garden all through the year. By providing just a little heat through the winter months you can easily grow a wide range of plants that wouldn’t survive in a cold, unheated greenhouse.

All that is needed to keep a range of tender plants is a little gentle heat to provide frost-free growing conditions. A small electric fan heater with a build-in thermostat is ideal set at around 5-6oC (40-42oF). When the air temperature drops below this, the heater will switch on and supply warm air. This is a very economical way to heat a greenhouse and keep plants frost free at night. In these conditions you can easily grow a range of tender foliage and flowering plants to create a colourful display in the greenhouse over winter. As winter goes on you many need to change and swap some of the plant around as they either finish flowering, or come into flower, but with a mix of interesting foliage plants you can easily have plants that will look good from now right the way through the winter.

Not only will the plants look attractive, it also gives you somewhere to potter around over the winter months when the weather is too cold and wet to work outside.

Plant evergreen shrubs for colour

Bring brightness to the winter plot with some lively planting.

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The beauty of planting now is that plants get well established and mature well before next year, with all the moisture and good quality, improved soil needed for good growth. And to inject a bit of life in the garden now, your shrubs needn’t be all one colour green, or without any leaves until next year – bring in some brightly coloured evergreens (or ‘ever-pinks’, ‘ever-yellows’ or ever-reds!) into the fold now and your garden will sparkle in the cold season.

Simply dig a wide, square hole and fork over the bottom a little for good drainage. Sprinkle a little Rootgrow for good root system establishment and set the plant in, watering it well. It’s common to think we have good rain in autumn, but it’s often surprising how long it can be between rain showers. Ensure these shrubs get good water – those planted in pots of course need more water than those in the ground. It can be common for potted evergreens to get just as drought-ridden as in summer due to sparse rainfall; be vigilant and top them up. Use John Innes compost no.3 to house container evergreens.

Bed down your plot for winter

It’s an exciting time as you make preparations for next year’s crops.

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Your veg patch will be a shadow of its former self at this time of year, with plant remains, depleted soil, bare patches and tools and other dirty debris left over. However, it’s an exciting time really, when you can plan and prepare, and start again from scratch. Gardening’s very therapeutic and being able to start afresh from any of this year’s weather or cultivation disasters is rewarding to the soul! So, it’s time to get it all ship shape for another year, tidy and clean for when you want to start again proper.

On warmer, dry and non-frosty days you can get the fork out for a good dig over of the ground, turning over the soil and breaking up the hard clods. If your soil’s too hard and frosty to work, you can simply add a thick layer of rotted manure or good garden compost over the top to slowly bed down in its own time.

Ensure cloches are handy and clean in case of really harsh winters – you’ll need to help some of your crops in situ and cloche over winter greens and young plants to get them through the worst of it. Those areas you’re not using can be covered over with a weed-suppressing membrane or some black plastic until spring, saving you dealing with any interim weeds.

Have a look at some catalogues and enjoy ordering a few more seeds and plants, and look forward to a new season next year!

Sow sweet peas now

You’ll get gorgeous blooms earlier next year.

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There’s nothing nicer than being able to pick bunches of fragrant sweet peas from the garden to have in the house through the summer months. They are a delightful flower and easy to grow in the garden.

The seeds of sweet peas can be sown in autumn, at this time of the year, or in spring. The advantage of autumn sowing is the plants will start to flower a few weeks earlier next summer than spring-raised plants. Sowing now produces strong seedlings that can be over-wintered in a cold greenhouse or frame ready for planting out as soon as the weather fines up next spring. Sweet pea plants are surprisingly hardy and do not need any artificial heat over winter, but they do benefit from protection from cold winds and wet outdoor conditions. The small, hard round seeds can be sown in plant pots or small seed trays of well-drained compost now. Some growers either soak the seed in tepid water for 24 hours or chip away a small piece of the hard seed coat to aid germination, although if using fresh seed, they usually germinate without too many problems. To germinate provide gentle heat, such as a propagator, but once germinated, keep the seedlings in a light, cool place, and keep the compost in the pots just moist. 

Plant up a heuchera pot

They’ll bring slices of colour now… but check for vine weevil!

Sometimes you just want some easy bright colour to jazz up a doorstep or a patio, right near a window where you can see it from indoors, or where the postman can admire your handiwork! Famous for their reliable foliage, heucheras fit the bill in so many ways – they sit tight hardily over winter, are evergreen and come in an eye-popping array of zesty shades.

They’re everywhere in garden centres, tempting you with their ‘summery’ colours – they can also inject a slice of colour into lacklustre autumn borders too. This might be the best idea if you’ve ever had vine weevil in heuchera-filled containers, and can’t face the prospect of losing more plants to them! It can be disheartening to discover heuchera roots gnawed away and no plant left to speak of.

Heucheras have fine roots so weevil grubs feast on them easily, and prefer containerised plants – keep checking your plants for signs such as sudden wilting and weak growth. Rooting around gently in the plants’ soil may uncover the obvious C-shaped grubs, too. There’s still just time, if your pot’s compost is still warm enough at around 5C, to water on a drench of Nemasys Vine Weevil Killer, available from all good garden centres, which will prevent grub damage and therefore halt the next generation of adults too.

Heucheras, tiarellas and heucherellas (hybrids of the two genus) are all similar members of the saxifrage family, with low-growing foliage and zingy, foamy flowers each summer.

Pot perennial herbs for winter use

Rosemary, sage and thyme are perfect to grow near the house.

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Herbs are used a great deal in recipes and cooking all year round. Through the summer months there’s a large selection or annual and perennials herbs that can be grown and picked fresh from the garden, but in winter the choice is limited. However, hardy, evergreen herbs such as rosemary, thyme and sage are perfect for growing over the winter for use in the kitchen to add flavour to seasonal dishes. When growing herbs for winter use, it’s handy to have them in containers that can be arranged or grouped together by the house, so that when you want a sprig of thyme for some stuffing or some rosemary to use with lamb, you don’t have to go right out into the garden to pick them.

At this time of the year you can often buy sturdy herb plants that are perfect for potting into slightly larger individual pots that can be grouped together, or for planting into a larger container to create a mini herb garden. When stood outside in a sunny, sheltered position they should be fine over the winter, but if the weather does turn very cold and frosty, bringing them into a conservatory or greenhouse will keep them fresh and growing, meaning you can pick from them right the way through the winter months.

Plant wallflowers

They’ll be a delight with their bright and fragrant blooms.

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Wallflowers and other biennials such as foxgloves and sweet Williams need a lengthened growing season. Annuals are sown, grow and die in one season, but biennials get themselves established and leaf up in their first growing season and then flower the next – hence we start preparing this year for next year’s display.

These wallflowers (Erysimum cheiri) look slightly different and are distinguishable from the perennial wallflowers (E. linifolium) we know and love such as ‘Bowles’ Mauve’ or ‘Red Jep’, which we often buy for planting in spring. Common biennial wallflowers are also very sweetly scented – a real joy.

Summer sowing will put up young plants ready for planting out now – or you can simply buy ready-done plugs or bare roots from the garden centre to get going now. They like poor and very well-drained, grit-improved soil, and lots and lots of sun! Just remind yourself of their common name to determine what situation they like – a sun-baked wall with barely any compost and water freely draining away. They need no fertiliser or improved soil, so therefore are very undemanding, and will delight you with their short-stemmed, bright and fragrant spring flowers.