October has been warm with heavy rain and the occasional storm. Weeds and grass are still growing strong though the buffeting winds have damaged petals, tall ornamental grasses and those perennials with architectural seed heads. Trees and shrubs are colouring beautifully and many are abundant with berries, nuts and fruits, said to predict a cold winter. The fruiting forms of fungi grow especially well in warm, damp conditions at this time of year, emerging rapidly from the main body of the organism hidden beneath the soil or in dead matter. They can be seen in an extraordinary diversity of forms, textures and colours in woodlands, parks, verges, gardens and fields. A wonderful time for a woodland walk.
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.
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 seed heads of perennials can still stand tall, their tawny 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 with architectural form throughout November include Aster, bee balm (Monarda), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), sedum (Hylotelephium), teasel (Dipsacus), giant onion (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.
Selecting and siting apples and pears
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 rootstocks; the rootstock 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 preparations 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.
In autumn many native hedges are covered in brilliantly coloured fruit. Rich, vivid hawthorns with their haws, sloe covered blackthorns and rosy hips. Ornamental fruits, both wild and cultivated, are a nutritious source of food for wildlife and lift an autumn garden. Planting a mixed native hedge of mainly hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), with blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana), wild privit (Ligustrum vulgare) and the wild roses (Rosa canina, Rosa spinosa and Rosa arvensis)creates a living boundary. The shrubs can also be planted singly or in pots if you only have a small space. Small trees such as the crab apple (Malus hupensis) or rowans (Sorbus aucuparia, Sorbus vilmornii, Sorbus cashmiriana) provide abundant autumn fruits. Many non-native shrubs also grow vibrant berries. Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa) with its strawberry like fruits, firethorn Pyracantha ‘Orange Glow’ with packed bunches of small orange fruits, milkflower cotoneaster (Cotoneaster lacteus) laden with small red berries and deep purple berries of Bodinier’s beautyberry (Callicarpa bodinieri giraldii ‘Profusion’) are all loved by birds and small mammals. Planting one of these fruiting trees or shrubs now will bring colour and wildlife to the garden next autumn.
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.
There are many ways to increase plants stocks without buying in new plants. Root cuttings are one of them. Root cuttings can be taken in late autumn or early winter from plants that produce suckers from their roots, once the plants have become dormant. Herbaceous perennials such as echinops (Echinops), anchusa (Anchusa azurea), oriental poppies (Papaver orientale), Japanese anemone (Anemone x hybrida), acanthus (Acanthus mollis), phlox (Phlox) and verbascums (Verbascum), can be propagated by root cuttings. It is a method that can produce large numbers of vigourous plants from a single parent.
Choose a strong looking clump, lift carefully once the plant is dormant and wash the roots. Choose strong, young pencil thick roots and cut near the crown of the root with a clean, sharp knife or secateurs. Removing more than a third of the root system will damage the parent plant so take no more than this and replant the parent immediately.
Cut off the thin root end and any fibrous lateral roots, cut each root into 5-10cm sections with a horizontal cut at the top end and an angled cut at the lower end. Plant the cuttings in pots filled with cuttings compost, around 5cm apart with the horizontal cut end buried just below the surface. Water lightly and place in a cold frame. The following spring individual cuttings will begin to develop strong roots and signs of growth, pot them up singly and grow on to plant out the following year.
Dividing rhubarb crowns
Lift the plant when it becomes dormant in November. Use a spade to divide the crown into three parts, each with a section of the rhizome or thick root part and one or more growing points, the outer parts of the root are generally stronger. Discard any decayed material. Dig a hole slightly larger than section and replant immediately. Sections can be retained in damp sacking if replanting is postponed for a short time.
Winter tree wash
Fruit trees and bushes that have suffered from sap sucking pests such as aphids can be sprayed with a winter tree wash when dormant to kill of the pests and their eggs which often overwinter in crevices in the trees bark. The wash is based on plant oils and diluted with water before being sprayed onto affected fruit trees and bushes, killing off the pests and their eggs and reducing the damage for the following year. The spray can however damage hibernating wildlife and pest predators such as queen wasps so should be used only when there is a serious problem.
Washing winter bark
Some trees have ornamental bark that glows in low winter sunlight when the garden generally lacks colour. Himalayan birch (Betula utilis var jacquemontii), Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula), river birch (Betula nigra), paperbark maple (Acer griseum) have bright or peeling bark. The bark becomes more luminous when clean. To achieve this spray water on the trunk to loosen any heavy deposits, mix a bucket of warm, mild soapy water and use a brush to scrub the trunk working from the top to the bottom. Take care of to not to damage the fragile, translucent leaves of peeling bark. Rinse with cold water and buff when dry.
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 duckweed 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.
Remember, remember: Bonfires
Fire has an elemental attraction, particularly as the evenings draw in and days become colder. Celebration and ritual exploit fire to warm, attract and excite with its opposing qualities of destruction and regeneration. However burning garden waste causes air pollution which is harmful to older people, young children and those with respiratory diseases, burning treated wood, plastics, rubber and painted items creates carcinogenic toxins that can be harmful if breathed in and can pollute soil for decades. It is better to compost, use branches and logs to form a wildlife habitat or your take your waste to a local authority-recycling scheme. If you do have a fire check for hedgehogs and other wildlife that may be buried in the stack, move the pile to another site before lighting and only ever burn dry wood and other plant materials. Never light a fire in windy weather or if local air pollution levels are high.
Gardening tasks in November
- Plant bare root deciduous trees, shrubs and hedging plants
- Check tree ties and stakes are strong for winter
- Wash the trunks of trees with ornamental bark to bring out their winter colour
- Plant tulips and lilies in the borders
- Prune roses
- Cut back fallen stems
- Lift and divide perennials and aquatic plants
- Sow sweet peas for next year
- Take root cuttings from anchusa, phlox, verbascum, ornamental poppy and acanthus
- Tie in trailing climbers to protect from strong winds
- Plant new fruit trees, bushes and cane fruit from now until March
- Start pruning 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
- Winter wash fruit trees and bushes affected by aphid pests
- Divide rhubarb crowns
- In late November prune grapevines
- Cut back any summer fruiting raspberries and blackberries before tying in to wires
- Plant paperwhite narcissi and indoor hyacinths for the house
- Plant tulips in containers
- 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
- Leave damaged fruit on the ground for blackbirds and fieldfares
- Clean out nesting boxes before spring
- Keep birdfeeders and baths clean
- Leave wild areas and log piles for hibernating wildlife
- Keep a leaf pile for hibernators and ground feeding invertebrates
- Clean tools, pots and seed trays ready for spring
- Tidy and clean stakes and other supports
- Clear fallen leaves and make leaf mould
I Ate Sunshine For Breakfast
A book for children celebrating plants and their uses around the world, with bold, colourful illustrations and fascinating facts.
The Edible Balcony
How to grow fruit and vegetable whatever space you have, with ideas on recycled containers, ‘hanging’ gardens and much more. The book gives advice on planting, growing and pest control on a range of crops. A guide on how create an abundant urban eden in a tiny space.
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Things to see, places to go
A ramble through the green spaces of Kings Cross to connect with nature through weeds, trees and other plants. This is a walk for anyone who'd like to connect with nature in an urban setting - from tiny pavement weeds to the mighty trees of St Pancras Churchyard.
4 November 2020, 9am - 10.30am
Story Garden, Ossulston Street, London NW1 1DF
Wonderful Wildlife Weekends
Learn more about the wildlife around you in London with the London Wildlife Trust. Booking essential.
Every Saturday from 7 November 2020, 10.30am - 3.30pm (sessions start on the hour or half hour)
Woodberry Wetlands, London, Meet by the Education Ponds (East entrance, off Newnton Close, N4 2RH)