Autumn Gardening

Red admiral butterfly

Red admiral butterfly, Tony Atkin, CC BY-SA

A warm September has seen increased numbers of red admiral butterflies, feeding on late flowering ivy and windfall fruit. Spiders have been at their most visible. Female spiders flock to make webs while males invade warm, dry sheds and houses to seek a mate, by mid October they will have begun their winter hibernation and are less evident. The late September rain will have replenished the parched ground, fed drought stricken plants and softened the earth for autumn plantings.

Autumn is now here and bringing, cooler days, misty mornings and mellow fruitfulness. Leaves 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

Blackbird on hawthorn tree

Blackbird on hawthorn tree, David Hawgood, CC BY-SA

Trees with good autumn colour are beginning their annual show, 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.

Autumn crocus

Autumn crocus, Pauline Eccles, CC BY-SA

Berries cluster on hollies, hawthorns, blackthorns, firethorns, cotoneaster, sea buckthorn, our common guelder rose and wayfaring tree. Beautyberry (Callicarpa bodineri var giraldii ‘Profusion’) looks startling 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 Rosa species and cultivars carry an abundance of brightly coloured hips.

Ornamental grasses have great presence this month, with gold or silver stems and seed heads forming a transparent, shimmering veil. Most perennials will now be fading but some are still showy in October, these late flowering plants are important sources for nectar and pollen for insects, many of which will overwinter and provide food for birds the following spring.

Red squirrel

Red squirrel, Andy Parkes, CC BY-SA

Michaelmas daisies or Asters are loved by visiting pollinators with nectar now in short supply. Montbretia (Crocosmia); beardtongue (Penstemon); sedum (Hylotelephium); sneezeweed (Helenium); bugbane (Actea); and bistort (Persicaria) continue to bloom. Red hot pokers (Kniphofias), deadheaded earlier in the year can have a second flush of their brilliant, hot coloured, flowering heads and Gauras with their delicate, dancing spires can flower well into October. In shady spots, ivy leaved cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) 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 visiting birds and mammals. Squirrels and jays may be seen burying acorns and hazelnuts. Goldfinches, now much more common in gardens, may gather on teasels and thistles, attracted by their nutritious seedheads, thrushes and blackbirds may search on lawns for leatherjackets and earthworms. 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 become an important source as other plants lose their flowers.

Stormy weather

Tree mallow

Tree mallow, James T M Towill, CC BY-SA

High winds and heavy autumn rain can damage plants so it’s important to check perennials and shrubs regularly, particularly after stormy weather. While they remain strong and upright, allow them to continue standing, but cut off damaged stems or branches that look unattractive and may harbor disease.

Late summer flowering shrubs such as butterfly bush (Buddleja), mallow (Lavatera) 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 (cut to a few inches above the ground) to produce strong new shoots. The long sappy stems of climbing roses can also be pruned. Shortening 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 creatures. 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.

Helping wildlife

Pile of leaves

Pile of leaves, Jeuwre, CC BY-SA

Autumn is a time of abundance and garden creatures focus on food to build up fat reserves and shelter 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 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. Be careful before lighting a bonfire. Check for wildlife and move the site of the fire if necessary.

Winter protection for tender plants

Rhedynen Dicksonia Tree Fern

Rhedynen Dicksonia Tree Fern, Alan Fryer, CC BY-SA

Tender plants will be vulnerable to the first frosts, cold and wet weather. Be alert to weather forecasts of 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, which are in sheltered positions and 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 necessary 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

Box cuttings (Buxus sempervirens) in the greenhouse at Trerice

Box cuttings (Buxus sempervirens) in the greenhouse at Trerice, Rod Allday, CC BY-SA

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.

Windfall fruits and leaves

Windfall fruit is an important source of nutrition for many insects, butterflies, birds and mammals. However they may also harbor disease or maggots which may infect trees and bushes or allow the pests to crawl into the ground to pupate, affecting the fruiting plants the next year. Clear some of the fruit or place it away from the parent plant to provide for wildlife but keep the ground near the plants free from potential pests. Fallen leaves may also be carrying fungal diseases, if this is the case rake them up and destroy them. After clearing, a mulch of well rotted stable manure will help restore nutrients for next years crop.

Gardening for birds

Viburnum opulus, Guelder Rose

Viburnum opulus, Guelder Rose, Kate Jewell, CC BY-SA

Urban environments provide important habitats for many bird species and birds will reward gardeners by acting as natural predators to plant pests. Even a small balcony or roof garden can offer a welcoming habitat for garden birds if shelter, food, water, nesting sites and materials are available. October is a good time to think about improving your garden or outside space for birds.

Think about planting a small tree. Hawthorn, rowan, silver birch or field maple are suitable native species that host a wide variety of insects. Shrubs also provide shelter, food and nesting sites. Guelder rose, amelanchier, dog rose, cotoneaster, and euonymous all provide cover and edible berries. Less heavily manicured lawns with longer grass give shelter to insects and provide habitat for leatherjackets and earthworms. Don’t worry too much about weeds; dandelion seeds will give a tasty snack to visiting birds. Planting a climber such as honeysuckle or ivy will provide nectar for insects and shelter for birds. Teasel, sunflowers, ornamental thistles, globe thistle, hazel and miscanthus grasses provide autumn food can all be grown cheaply and easily from seed.

Make a nesting box from recycled, untreated timber using the design of one of many templates that can be found online for different species. If you already have a nesting box or two get them down and clean and disinfect them for the next breeding season or line them with some fleece to provide a winter roost. Don’t forget to put out water for both drinking and bathing in a place safe from predators. Bathing cleans and plumps feathers that insulate birds from the cold. Encouraging and providing for birds in your garden can help sustain their numbers.

Gardening tasks in October

Woody Plants

  • 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.
  • 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.


  • 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.
  • Lift and divide herbaceous perennials.
  • After early frosts lift and store dahlia and canna lily tubers in sand, in a cool, dry space. In mild areas they be left in the ground and protected by a layer of straw.
  • Move tender plants that need winter protection under cover or wrap up.


  • Prune blackberries and summer raspberries.
  • Take cuttings of currants and gooseberries.
  • Order new fruit trees and bushes.
  • Continue to harvest and store apples and pears.
  • Prune out dead or damaged branches from apple and pear trees.
  • Rake up and destroy diseased leaves.
  • Sow alpine strawberries indoors.
  • Remove unripened figs from trees leaving embryo fruit for next year’s crop.


  • 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.

Sustainable Practices

  • Begin to rake up leaves to make leaf mold.
  • Renovate, scarify and feed lawns, law new turf.
  • 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.

Relaxing reading

Gaia’s Guide: A Guide to Home-scale Permaculture

Toby Hemenway

Using permaculture principles, working with nature, to create urban gardens and plant communities that sustain soil fertility, conserve water, provide habitat and a yield a harvest.

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Curlew Moon

Mary Colwell

The curlew is one of our most evocative and endangered birds. Mary Colwell follows them through the seasons to find out what is affecting them, linking the journey to natural history and an understanding of what we can do to help their plight.

Buy >

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Things to see, places to go

Fungi Foray: London Wildlife Trust

A guided walk (not a foraging walk) to introduce visitors to the various fungi that can be found in Sydenham Hill Wood, London Wildlife Trust's oldest reserve and the largest remaining fragment of the ancient Great North Wood.


13 October 2019, 2 - 3.30pm


Sydenhalm Hill Wood and Cox's Walk, Crescent Wood Road, Sydenham Hill, SE26 6LS

Learn more >

Wildlife Gardening Forum Conference - Healthy gardens for people, plants and wildlife

Exploring the benefits and potential risks that garden habitats can represent to plant, animal and human health, including speakers discussing best-practice for wildlife friendly gardening.


24 October 2019


Zoological Society of London, Regents Park, London NW1 4RY

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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.