Wild November

The nights are now drawing in, the days can be 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.

The long, hot, dry summer, running well into October, has left many late flowering perennials in bloom with grass and weeds still growing strong. It has also brought brilliant autumn leaf colour with increased range, intensity and retention. Butterflies could still be seen on warm days in October but the summer drought created difficult conditions for caterpillars, many food source plants dried out so food for them was scarce, this will affect their numbers next year. November is forecast to be more unpredictable, with cold weather, storms and consequent damage.

In the garden

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), Lorax, CC BY-SA

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.

Selecting and sitting apples and pears

Cox's Orange Pippin

Cox’s Orange Pippin, David Wright, CC BY-SA

Apples and pears have been bred in Britain for centuries whether for eating, cooking, cider, perry or juicing, some are better fresh from the tree, others store well. Many of the old, local cultivars linking landscape, ecology and culture are at risk of being lost to the more profitable commercial varieties. Brogdale in Kent hosts a national collection of rare and heritage varieties. Selecting and growing an old variety on your patch will help maintain a rich traditional of local distinctiveness and cultural diversity. Varieties will also have different flavours, colours, textures and uses; from large, bitter cooking apples to small, sweet dessert apples from hard green storing pears to succulent yellow dessert pears. At some markets and orchards you can see and taste different varieties to help you make a choice. The trees bring blossom in the spring, forage for pollinators, a light canopy of bright green leaves and edible fruits in late summer or autumn. They bring in nature, providing habitat for birds and windfall fodder for foxes, hedgehogs, blackbirds and invertebrates.

Two considerations are important in selecting apple and pear trees; first the eventual size of the tree you would like and secondly the time of year the tree will blossom. Fruit tree cultivars are grafted onto root stocks, the root stock will determine the eventual height of the mature tree, anything from a traditional standard, orchard fruit tree to a dwarf variety, suitable for a container. Trees can also be trained into espaliers which will grow against a wall or cordons which are single stems trained at an angle to provide a variety of fruit in a small space. You may need to have two fruit trees or a neighbour with a fruit tree that flowers at the same time so the trees can pollinate each other. Varieties are given a pollination group or are self fertile. Self fertile trees can be grown on their own but otherwise you will need at least two trees in the same pollination group growing relatively close to one another to make sure they fruit successfully.

A tree is long lived so careful siting and soil preparation are important. Fruit trees need well drained, moist soil and a sunny position away from frost pockets that may damage early blossom. On lighter, sandy soil organic matter can be dug in to improve fertility and moisture retention. Soil needs to be at least 45cm deep to allow roots to establish successfully. Prepare the ground for each tree by digging out all perennial weeds across a square meter. Turn over the soil to at least 45cm and dig in a 10cm layer of bulky organic matter such as well rotted stable manure. Trees can be planted any time they are dormant, roughly from November until March, earlier is better as the soil is still warm and gives time for a stronger root system to establish before spring. Just before planting sprinkle and fork in around 100gm of Blood, Fish and Bone organic fertilizer.

Leaf mould

Alder by the Tone

Alder by the Tone, Derek Harper, CC BY-SA

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.

Pond maintenance

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


Tulip, John O’Neill, CC BY-SA

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.

Skimmia japonica 'Rubella'

Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’, TeunSpaans, CC BY-SA

Gardening tasks in November

Woody Plants

  • Plant bare root deciduous trees, shrubs and hedging plants.
  • Check tree ties and stakes are strong for winter.


  • Plant tulips and lilies
  • Prune roses
  • Cut back fallen stems
  • Lift and divide perennials and aquatic plants.


  • Plant new fruit trees, bushes and cane fruit from now until March
  • Prune established apple and pear trees for shape and fruiting, remove dead, damaged and diseased branches and any remaining rotten fruit
  • Weed around the base of fruit trees, bushes and cane fruit
  • Check on any stored fruit and remove pieces that are beginning to rot
  • Fit grease bands to the trunks of established trees to prevent larval insects climbing into the canopy to lay eggs that may later damage fruit


  • Plant paper narcissi and indoor hyacinths for the house


  • Dig over especially bare or uncultivated soil to expose the larva and eggs of pests for birds and frost to clear.
  • Clear ponds of excess vegetation.
  • Keep bird feeders and baths topped up.
  • Clean out nesting boxes before spring.

Sustainable Practices

  • Clean tools, pots and seed trays ready for spring
  • Tidy and clean stakes and other supports.
  • Clear fallen leaves and make leaf mould. Keep a leaf pile for hibernators and ground feeding invertebrates.

Relaxing reading

The Fruit Tree Handbook

Ben Pike

An informative book and a practical guide to growing a wide range of fruit trees, restoring neglected orchards, planting community orchards and cultivating fruit while respecting nature and the environment.

Buy >

How to See Nature

Paul Evans

Paul Evans huge experience and broad knowledge of natural history, looked at through the lens of both science and folklore, brings fresh insights to nature in both cities and rural areas.

Buy >

Things to see, places to go

London Parks and Gardens Trust Lecture: Making Space in Dalston 2007-2010 and Ongoing

Landscape architects J & L Gibbons talks about their collaboration with muf architecture/art and Objectif, to conceive this award-winning project as a new approach to regeneration, creating a shared vision with residents, businesses and local organizations.


12 November 2018, 6.30pm - 8pm


The Gallery, 70-77 Cowcross Street, London EC1M 6EL

Learn more >

Phytology: Root Harvest - Solidarity Medicine Making

Work with herbalists Rasheeqa Ahmad and Shumaisa Khan to harvest plants to be made into medicines for refugees living in France.


24 November 2018, 10am - 1pm


Bethnal Green Nature Reserve, Middleton St, London E2 9RR

Learn more >

Kew Gardens Exhibition: Mark Frith - A Legacy of Ancient Oaks

Mark Frith's detailed portraits highlight the gnarled architectural beauty of ancient tree trunks, bark and branches in winter.


6 October 2018 - 17 March 2019


Kew Gardens, Richmond TW9 3AB

Learn more >

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.

Elaine Hughes


Elaine is an RHS Gold Medal award winning landscape designer with a special interest in creating beautiful and functional spaces that are also as biodiverse and sustainable as possible. She has designed a wide range of projects including private gardens, community gardens, public areas, schools and community sites.