The nights are drawing in, the days are often dull, temperatures are dropping, frosts sudden, gales and freezing rain possibilities, a challenge for both plants and wildlife in the garden. A final flourish of brilliant colour cloaks the trees before winds and rain bring down flurries of leaves to carpet the ground.
In the garden
The variability of sunlight, rain, wind and temperature and the chemical processes these induce will affect the intensity and levels of autumn leaf colour. Cold nights stop chlorophyll production, greens quickly fade and yellows emerge. Bright sunlit days increase sugar concentration in the leaves and reds become stronger. Dull, wet days produce more mellow, muted colours. November makes all the difference. Heavy frosts and strong winds can cause leaves to drop before full colouration is reached whereas strong colours will be seen in years when November days are dry and sunny with nights that are cool but above freezing.
The stems and seedheads of perennials can still stand tall, their brown forms glistening on frosty mornings in the low autumn light, but many perennials will be retreating into dormancy with leaves collapsing and dying down, particularly in wet autumns, till little of their summer glory can be seen. In November perennials with a strong structure will help create a garden with year round interest. Those looking good throughout November include Aster, bee balm, Monarda, black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia, sedum Hylotelephium, teasel, allium, love-in-a-mist, Nigella, hyssop, Agastache, Jerusalem sage, Phlomis and sneezeweed, Helenium.
The garden can still be very active, with gentle, low sunlight filtering through a curtain of golden foliage, blackbirds and wood pigeons bending the boughs of crab apples, small seed feeders such as gold finches lining up at feeders to try and build up their fat reserves for winter and squirrels and jays searching for acorns to bury for their winter store.
Throughout November the leaves will be falling, rain and high winds will increase shedding but finally the chemical changes in the leaves and a corky, fragile layer at the end of each stem breaks away to cause the leaves to drift down, even on a still day. These leaves can be a resource either as a type of mulch, particularly for woodland gardens or as a habitat for hibernating creatures and ground feeding invertebrates.
Rake up leaves where you want to clear them from your outdoor space, leaving piles under shrubs and trees or in hidden corners as wildlife habitat. Lawns need to be raked to prevent lack of light and moisture damaging the turf. Any diseased leaves should be kept separate and either burnt or bagged, this will prevent diseases building up in the garden and being carried over to the next year.
Most leaves can be used to create leaf mould. Alder, hornbeam and oak break down quickly, beech, horse chestnut and sycamore more slowly. A simple leaf mould bin can be made with a 4m or more length of chicken wire arranged around four stakes which are hammered upright into the ground as the four corners of the bin. The wire is then attached to the stakes with staples or cable ties making sure to bend any sharp ends of the wire to the centre. The bin is filled with collected leaves, sprinkled with water and with a little soil every now and then to keep the leaves in place. This will need to rot down for a year or more before it produces a rich, crumbly compost.
If you don’t have room for a leaf mould bin you can collect leaves in hessian sacks or bin liners, aerated with a few holes. Add a sprinkling of water to the leaves and tie up. Leave in a shady corner till the following autumn and check the leaves are well rotted before spreading under trees and shrubs or under woodlanders in the shady parts of the garden.
Bare root plantings
From November bare root trees, shrubs and hedging will be available for planting. These are often good value and much easier to handle than large, and often extremely heavy, containerised woody plants. However, because the roots are bare, they are vulnerable to frost and drying out. If you can’t plant these out on delivery, heel them into the ground in a shallow hole, cover with loose soil and water when the weather is mild.
It is a good idea to prepare the ground before the plants arrive by weeding thoroughly over the whole area, cultivating to around a spits depth and a square metre around where the tree or shrub is to be planted and incorporating some well rotted stable manure. Don’t dig holes before the plants arrive as these may fill with rain and become waterlogged which may cause any newly planted roots to rot.
After a warm summer ponds can become very congested with vegetation that will eventually affect water quality and increase evaporation when the weather is warmer. By November the breeding season is over, plant material will have died back and many amphibians will have left the pond to hibernate in the garden so it is a good time to remove excess vegetation from the pond. This can be a very cold and messy job so lay some plastic sheeting around the pond, get some waterproof gauntlets, a net and a tough knife or billhook and make sure you have a hot thermos nearby before you start.
First remove duck weed by skimming the pond with a net, next any rotting vegetation, dead or dying foliage and cut back excess growth of marginal plants. Some of these have very congested roots and a spade or billhook may be needed. Plants that are grown in aquatic pots can be lifted and divided before being returned to the pond. Submerged plants can be pulled out with a net to thin them out. Place all the material on the plastic sheeting or a tarpaulin and leave beside the pond for several days before composting so any aquatic creatures that have been trapped can crawl back into the water.
Be good to your tools
Why not give your tools a good clean and oil? This is something that doesn’t have to be done outside so may be an activity for a cold, wet day. Garden tools are often used and put away muddy and wet, gradually reducing their effectiveness and also allowing them to carry disease. Properly maintaining them will keep them sharp and rust free and prevent handles from snapping.
First clean and dry your tools, for some this may just be a quick rub down with a soapy sponge, others may need a hard scrub, both the blades and the handles need cleaning. Once clean dry thoroughly either by wiping with a dry rag or leaving aside overnight. Rust can be removed by gently rubbing with some wire wool or a wire brush. Wooden handles can be gently sanded down to remove splinters or rough areas.
You can use a metal file to lightly sharpen the edge of a spade blade. Cutting tools will need a sharpening stone. A sharp edge makes the tools function more effectively, is easier on the back and arms and far less likely to damage plants. Finally oil the metal parts with a rag and rub boiled linseed oil into wooden handles.
Planting out winter pots and bulbs
Tulips are brazenly colourful late spring bulbs in a huge variety of shades and forms, November is the best time to plant them either in pots or borders. If planted extra deep in the borders they can repeat regularly each year. If planting in containers make sure there is good drainage, adding grit to the compost, as tulips do not like to be wet. Squirrels and mice will look to bulbs for food so it may be necessary to cover pots in chicken wire, bent over and weighted down with a stone, to prevent them digging up your spring show.
Some bulbs have wonderful scents. Indoor hyacinths and paper narcissi are particularly fragrant and can be planted in November. If you would like paper narcissi for Christmas, try planting some in the middle of the month. Use a loam based compost with some grit, plant the bulbs just below the surface about 2.5 cm apart and put them in a cool place, below 10C. Water and keep them moist but not wet and check them over regularly. When the leaves shoot to 20-25cm long they can be brought into a warm room ready to flower for Christmas.
Winter pots and window boxes can be planted now too. Pots need to be frost safe and heavy for stability and protection of the roots. Plants with evergreen leaves, coloured stems, berries and flowers look good in the mix, think about contrasting leaf shapes and plant forms. Japanese blood grass, Imperata, cylindrical ‘Red Baron’, trailing ivies, coral bells, Heuchera, begonia, and Skimmia rubella, wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens with its red berries, winter flowering pansies and cyclamen, Christmas rose, Helleborus and dogwood, Cornus with its colourful stems will all bring cheer to cold, dull winter days and provide nectar for wandering bees.
Gardening tasks in November
- Plant tulips and lilies for the garden, paper narcissi and indoor hyacinths for the house.
- Clean tools, pots and seed trays ready for spring
- Clear fallen leaves and make leaf mould. Keep a leaf pile for hibernators and ground feeding invertebrates.
- Prune roses
- Cut back fallen stems
- Lift and divide perennials and aquatic plants.
- Tidy and clean stakes and other supports.
- Dig over especially bare or uncultivated soil to expose the larva and eggs of pests for birds and frost to clear.
- Plant bare root deciduous trees, shrubs and hedging plants.
- Check tree ties and stakes are strong for winter.
- Clear ponds of excess vegetation.
- Keep bird feeders and baths topped up.
- Clean out nesting boxes before spring.