Plan your crop rotation

Prepare your schedule now for happy and healthy plants.

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The aim of crop rotation is to add a bit of order to your plot, segmenting similar, related crops together according to their cultivation needs. Plus, it’s good plant husbandry to change around crops yearly so specific soil pests and diseases don’t build up on the same plants, year in year out. Also, some plant families, such as legumes, leave behind nutrients for the following crop – nitrogen in the case of ensuing brassicas, which are leafy and so need this vital element. For organic gardeners, crops rotation means using fewer synthetic pesticides and fertilisers as a result.

There are a few crops that don’t fit into the strict schedule, and can be dotted around as convenient – perennials such as strawberries, rhubarb and asparagus need their own permanent sections, courgettes and squash are hungry and thirsty plants so may like being in the manure afforded the potato section, or slot them in their own moist, rich section elsewhere. Lettuce can be tucked in anywhere, or into pots, while sweetcorn does well in a few areas.

Prune ornamental vines

Encourage strong new growth with a chop now.

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Ornamental vines such as Vitis ‘Purpurea’ and Vitis cognetiae make good climbing plants in the garden. They are related to vines grown for their fruits, but with ornamental varieties, it’s the foliage we want. They look good all though the summer but come autumn the leaf colours intensify and put on a wonderful show.

Despite they exotic appearance, vines are totally hardy and are not harmed by heavy frosts. They are also very tolerant of different soil types and will grow on well drained and clay soils alike. To establish any vine the soil need improving by working in plenty of organic matter at planting time, but once they get their roots down into the soil, they are very easy to grow.

They make excellent climbing plants on walls, fences, up and over a pergola or even scrambling up trees. Some types can be vigorous, but they are easily contained by pruning and the main prune is done in winter when the vines are dormant.  If pruned in spring as the buds are swelling, the cuts bleed sap, so ideally prune after leaf fall up until late January. The annual winter prune keeps the vine under control and will encourage strong new growth next year with good leaf colour. It also allows you to train it as you want.

Sow onions for exhibition

Or just enjoy large, tasty crops early next summer.

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If you fancy growing some excellent onions for show next year, perhaps at your local show or even somewhere like Malvern, now’s the time to start sowing seed. Usually you might wait until February, but for earlier bulbs, which have the time to grow large for the show bench, you can sow this month.

Of course, it’s not just perfect show onions you can get going, if you just fancy an earlier crop of large, tasty bulbs, ready for harvest around June, give it a go. You’ll need heating equipment and other paraphernalia for serious show bench competitors, but not for village show level or everyday use.

Sow seed evenly on to good seed compost, under glass or on the windowsill, and cover with a light layer of around half a centimetre of further compost. Keep the tray or module tray at around 15-20C, and water only very lightly. Don’t overwater or there’s the risk of rotting. Transplant when seedlings are large enough to handle into individual pots, grow on and plant out in spring.

Collect seed from berries

It’s a fun and easy experiment to try and grow your favourite bushes and trees.

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The abundant berries of autumn often remain all through winter, with rowans, cotoneasters, hawthorns and pyracanthas looking beautiful and bountiful for many months. If the birds get there first, however, you may have missed the boat! They usually don’t like some colours and varieties of certain things – it may be completely random – so hopefully you have some left.

It’s a real experiment to try and grow some bushes and trees from seed, but a fun one, and easy to do. Be aware that varietal shrubs may not grow true from seed though, and can revert to parent forms. Collect a few bunches of your favourites, such as callicarpa, rowan, cotoneaster, pyracantha or hawthorn, but wear gloves when handling yew, just to be safe from toxic branches.

Some plants are easier to germinate than others – rowan is easier than pyracantha, for example, as the latter needs a long period of cold to even think about germinating. Plus the outer flesh of many berries can act as a germination inhibitor, containing chemicals to stop the plant growing until it reaches optimum conditions.

Hence it’s common to try and remove most of the flesh from the berries before you sow, to give it a fighting chance. Many simply leave the flesh on and let it decide when it wants to germinate, however. Leave your sown trays or pots outside in the garden or in a cold frame, and protect from birds.

Give your mower an MOT

A little easy maintenance now keeps it tiptop for spring.

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This year, as a result of the mild autumn, lawns continued to grow and needed cutting regularly. This keeps the lawn looking good and regular light trimming helps it to thicken out from the base to provide a good covering of healthy grass. Once you’ve given your lawn its final trim of the year to tidy it up and to collect the last of the autumn leaves, the mower can finally be put away until it’s needed again in early spring when growth starts again.

To prolong the life of your mower and keep it in good condition, make sure you clean the mower down before storing it away. Wet grass is corrosive and if left on the mower over winter it will turn mouldy and the metal parts of the mower will rust very quickly. Removing all the old grass and drying the mower down will help prevent rust forming. If the mower runs on petrol, don’t leave fuel in the tank over winter. Ideally, run the mower until the tank is dry, or drain it off. With electric mowers, check the cable and wind it in neatly. Spending just a little time cleaning down your mower before it’s stored away means that when you get it out next spring it should start and run without too many problems.

Harvest Christmas vegetables

Many of them store well in advance of the big day.

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There’s nothing nicer than home-grown vegetables fresh from the garden or allotment and through the winter there’s a good selection to choose from. Not only do they taste good, you can pick what you want, when you want. With Christmas not far away, it’s worth having a look around your plot to see what will be ready to harvest and enjoy over the Christmas period.

The good thing about most winter vegetables is they will stay fresh for several days without losing their flavour, if kept cool. This means you can harvest your veg a few days before it’s needed, with the knowledge that you’ve got it all gathered in ready for Christmas lunch.

A cold shed or outbuilding is perfect to store your harvested produce. Alternatively, keep the veg in the fridge where it will last even longer. Brussels sprouts can be picked as buttons, or you can cut the whole stalk and remove the leaves. Remember also that leafy top of the plant can also be eaten. With cabbages, remove the tough, outer leaves to prevent wilting and if picking kale several days in advance, stand it in a pot of water to keep it fresh. Leeks store well, but trim off the green tops to keep them firm and with root crops, wash off the loose soil.

Perk up patios and doorsteps

Inject some colour to brighten up winter.

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If your garden looks drab and dull now, it can be easy to forget about it and feel very unexcited about everything in it. To up the interest, make you want to continue pottering about out there and plan for a bright garden future, cram in the colour in pots as much as you can. Visitors to your door will be impressed, and the view outside the window as you’re washing up on Christmas day will be a real treat!

Get in the garden centre now, where you’ll find an array of bargains as they pack up old stock for Christmas, plus some tried and tested ‘bare bones’ plants as border fillers. Find some evergreens like grasses, box bushes, phormiums and ferns, alongside plenty of the best bedding to see you through winter.

You can even buy some bargain basement bulbs and get those going too – it’s not too late to plant up many of them, especially those you’ll be planting in their own pots. You may be a month or two late and the open ground may be too hard but you’ll likely see a usual timely spring showing from most planted in containers.

Give borders a boost now

A bit of winter tidying up will help you get ahead for spring.

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Before winter really sets in, it’s a good idea to get out in the garden and start working in the borders. This not only makes the garden look better, some plants will benefit from a little attention now and it also helps you get ahead for next spring when there are a thousand and one jobs to do in the garden.

It’s good to start tidying the borders while the ground conditions are still good, rather than when soggy or frozen. Now that the autumn leaf drop is over for another year it’s a good opportunity to go through the border and clear away thick layers of leaves that could smother small or low growing perennials. If the leaves are left on these plants over winter they will rot, causing harm to the plants below.

You can also start cutting back some old perennial flower stems. Any that have decorative seed heads can be left for winter interest, but where stems are already starting to collapse, they can be cut back to ground level. Dead foliage on evergreen perennials such as bergenia can be picked off to freshen up the plants and generally work through the border tidying, trimming and removing weeds.

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.