Autumn in full swing

Autumn is now definitely with us, cooler days, misty mornings and mellow fruitfulness. Trees have begun to colour, turning brilliant reds, golds and browns. Fruits and berries are ripening on trees and hedgerows, a winter larder for birds and mammals.

In the garden

Beautyberry 'Profusion'

Beautyberry ‘Profusion’, David J. Stang, CC BY-SA

Trees with good autumn colour come into their own in October, the greens of summer making way as temperatures and light levels fall to their warm, rich autumn shades. Fruiting trees such as crab apples and rowans are heavy with their richly coloured bounty.

Berries cluster on hollies, hawthorns, blackthorns, firethorns, cotoneaster, sea buckthorn and our common guelder rose and wayfaring tree. Beautyberry Callicarpa bodineri var giraldii ‘Profusion’ surprises with its unusual vivid purple berries, spindle Euonymous europeaus ‘Red Cascade’ has wonderful, deep red autumn leaves and bright orange seeds appearing from segments of rose red fruits and many rose varieties carry an abundance of brightly coloured hips.

Ivy leaved cyclamen

Ivy leaved cyclamen, Dominicus Johannes Bergsma, CC BY-SA

Ornamental grasses can look at their best this month, with yellowing stems and seed heads forming a transparent veil, shimmering in the wind. Most perennials will now be fading but some may still be in flower; Asters, montbretia, Crocosmia, beardtongue, Penstemon, sedum, Hylotelephium, sneezeweed, Helenium, bugbane, Actea and bistort, Persicaria are amongst them. In shady spots, ivy leaved cyclamen, Cyclamen hederafolium and autumn crocus, Colchium autumnale, autumn flowering woodland bulbs, bloom in swaths low to the ground.

The seeds and fruits ripening in the garden will all provide food for the many birds and mammals that may visit, winter migrants, redwings and fieldfares, will feast on berries. Foraging foxes may become a nuisance, turning over logs to look for amphibians and digging earths as they try to stake out territory. Visiting insects will look for the few plants that can still provide nectar, flowering ivy will be an important source as other many other plants lose their flowers.

Storm warning

High winds and heavy autumn rain can leave plants battered and damaged so it’s important to keep an eye on perennials and shrubs. While it’s not necessary to cut these back if they remain strong and upright, bent and battered they will look untidy and may harbour disease.

Late summer flowering shrubs such as butterfly bush, Buddleja, mallow, Lavateria and elder, Sambucus can be cut back by around a third. This will prevent storm damage and won’t reduce their flowering potential the following summer as they produce flowers on the stems that will grow the next spring. Later in February they can be further cut back or coppiced to produce strong new shoots. The long sappy stems of climbing roses can also be pruned. Shorting them by a third and tying them into a frame or wires will help safeguard them from any strong winds.

The dried stems and ripe seedheads of summer perennials look magical covered in a frost, they provide winter interest, food and habitat for garden dwellers. However it is good practice to cut back broken and damaged stems particularly if they show signs of fungal growth or decay, remove and bag or bin diseased foliage and stems while leaving the stronger ones standing sentinel throughout the winter. While cutting back look out for weeds. Dig out the strong, fleshy taproots of perennial weeds and pull up any annual weeds. With the ground soft from autumn rain, weeding is much easier than in the baked and hardened ground of summer.

Give a helping hand to wildlife

Young hedgehog

Young hedgehog, David Baird, CC BY-SA

While autumn is a time of abundance, garden creatures need to be in peak condition as temperatures fall and they prepare for winter. Hedgehogs and insects will be looking for protected places to hibernate. Many insects hide in the hollow stems of drying, summer perennials. You can help them by making or buying simple insect hibernation boxes, basically an untreated wooden box, turned on its side and stuffed with hollow, cut, perennial stems, bamboo and logs drilled with various sized holes and placed somewhere sheltered.

Leaf and log piles are attractive to amphibians and hedgehogs, Erinaceus europaeus, as are places where garden waste, leaves and twigs are stored prior to burning. Creating log and leaf piles in underused corners of the garden will benefit creatures seeking a hibernation site. But be careful before lighting a bonfire. Check for wildlife and move the site of the fire if necessary.

Winter protection for tender plants

Bottlebrush, Chilepine

Bottlebrush, Chilepine, Public Domain

Tender plants will be vulnerable to the first frosts, cold and wet weather. Keep an eye on weather forecasts and lowering temperatures. Bring your tender potted plants inside to a conservatory, heated greenhouse or warm windowsill before the temperatures drop too low.

Larger garden plants such as bananas, tree ferns and bottlebrush, Callistemon, in sheltered positions, too big to bring inside, can be wrapped in hessian or horticultural fleece stuffed with straw. Tie in the leaves of the plant around the stem, push some canes or stakes into the ground to create a frame around it and surround with hessian or fleece. Stuff the area around the plant with straw and tie the covering firmly in place. If there is a particularly mild spell before the end of winter it may be necessary to unwrap plants and rewrap them to prevent them from becoming damp and rotting.

The tubers or rhizomes of plants such as cannas, ginger lilies and dahlias can also be damaged by frost. These can be protected by cutting back the stems, lifting the tubers or rhizomes, drying them off in a cool place after knocking off any loose soil and packing them in boxes of bark chips or sand, then leaving them in a frost free shed.

A mulch of straw, shredded paper and leaves covering the crowns of giant rhubarb, Gunnera, giant honey flower, Melianthus major and other semi hardy shrubs will protect them through cold winters.

Autumn lawn care

Early October is a good time to check the lawn for summer wear, and to renovate and repair areas that need attention. The weather is generally still mild enough for growth, encouraged by the autumn rains. Start by scarifying -raking the lawn gently with a spring-tinned rake - to remove dead grass, moss and leaf debris.

Every 2-4 years it is also a good idea to aerate the lawn, particularly any areas that have suffered heavy traffic. This can be done simply by spiking it with a garden fork to create a series of holes around 10-15cm deep and apart, or on larger lawns using a specialist hollow-tine aerator. Remove any plugs before top dressing.

Top dressing can be done yearly. Use a mix of 3 parts loam, 6 parts sharp sand and 1 part compost, work well into the lawn with the back of a rake and if following on from aeration make sure the holes created are filled and tamped down.

Worn areas of turf can be reseeded and uneven areas can be flattened. To reseed, rake over the areas, water well, scatter the seed evenly to the recommended rate in two directions to ensure an even cover. Press the seed down into the soil to get good contact either with your boots or with a lawn roller and water regularly if the weather is dry. You can mow whenever neccessary unlike a newly seeded lawn.

To even out dips or bumps cut into the turf around the area with a spade on three sides and roll it back. Fork over the area and either add or remove soil then replace the turned turf, pressing the edges down with your boot and watering thoroughly.

Planting evergreen hedges

Evergreen hedges such as box Buxus, privet, Ligustrum and yew, Taxus baccata provide good shelter for birds and habitat for insects. October is the perfect time to plant one. Mark out the line of your hedge with a string, giving adequate space for the spread of the hedge as it grows on both sides. Make sure a planting area of 60-90 cm width is clear of weeds and dig the ground over to a depth of around one spit (the length of the blade of a spade.) Check over the whips or potted plants and cut back any damaged roots. The whips or plants are laid out either in a single or a staggered double row depending on the species and required thickness of the hedge. Spread out the roots of each plant in the trench, ensuring that the bottom of the stem, just above where the roots begin, is level with the soil. Work the soil in making sure both under and all around the roots are covered. Heel in firmly so the plants stand erect and are held solidly in place. Water in thoroughly and mulch the area with 5-7.5 cm of well rotted stable manure. Keep watered during any dry spells.

Gardening tasks in October

  • Continue to plant spring flowering bulbs, leaving tulips until November.
  • Cut back fallen perennials but leave those that are healthy and standing firm for wildlife food and habitat.
  • Divide herbaceous perennials.
  • Move evergreen shrubs.
  • Plant evergreen and semi evergreen hedges such as box, privet and yew.
  • Partially prune, reduce height by 1/3, of late summer flowering shrubs such as Lavatera, Buddleja and Sambucus.
  • Partially prune and tie in climbing roses.
  • Renovate, scarify and feed lawns, law new turf.
  • Move tender plants that need winter protection under cover or wrap up.
  • Begin to rake up leaves to make leaf mold.
  • Finish seed collecting. Store labeled seeds in a cool, dark, dry place.
  • Net ponds, using stakes, rocks or pegs to hold the net in place and empty net of fallen leaves regularly.
  • Clean bird baths and keep them topped up.
  • Feed garden birds. Birds need high energy foods as the night temperatures drop, put out fatballs, peanuts, grated cheese and mixed seeds.
  • Prepare the ground for bare root plantings of trees, shrubs and hedging from November by weeding, cultivating and digging in some well rotted stable manure or garden compost.
Catriona Andrews


Catriona is a landscape designer and environmental educator. Her work combines naturalistic planting and sustainable practices to create spaces that are sensitive to the environment and welcoming to wildlife. She designs private gardens, community gardens and public spaces and leads courses and workshops on garden and planting design and the environment.