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.
This year crops of berries have been especially abundant due to the warm and wet weather. Blackberries, our most common foraged fruit, crowd their thorny canes lining lanes and footpaths. Massed haws, the fruit of the hawthorn, hang from the branches of trees and hedges. The rowan’s bright berries hang in bunches from heavily laden limbs, filling the understory of native woodlands and gardens. Late September’s last flush of sunshine has maintained growth in gardens, leaving them looking full and lush as autumn approaches.
In the garden
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, alternatively leave bundles of hollow plant stems in a sheltered place, ladybirds and other insects will cluster inside them for protection over winter.
Leaf, brick and log piles or upturned flower pots 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.
Spiders in the Garden
Webs are everywhere at this time of year, their silken threads catching on clothes and the light, resplendent with rain or dewdrops. In the centre, garden spiders are active and visible, their brown bodies with a cross of white spots covering the abdomen. The webs are expertly built from layers of spiraling silk carefully attached by the spiders legs around radial threads as the spider traverses her orb. Sitting at the centre the spider is aware of the slightest movement in the web, a signal of trapped insect prey. Once alerted the spider quickly wraps the quarry in an entanglement of sticky silk.
Females are now feeding up in preparation for mating, building a silken cocoon and in that laying her eggs. She will watch and protect the eggs for the coming weeks until late autumn when she dies, leaving the young to hatch and fend for themselves late next spring.
Winter protection for tender plants
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, 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.
Moving Trees and Shrubs
Large trees and shrubs, planted over 5 years previously will not generally survive transplanting. Younger, smaller specimens planted in the wrong place or outgrowing their space may survive if treated carefully. All plants suffer stress and shock on being transplanted so it’s best to do during their dormant period. Deciduous trees and shrubs can be moved from late October until mid March, evergreens are best transplanted in October or March. Wait for cooler damper weather so the ground is more manageable and to prevent the roots drying on while lifting.
Decide on the new position and if possible dig a hole there for the plant. Prune out and dead, damaged or diseased wood but resist a thorough prune until the plant is re established. Water the roots of the plant heavily the morning before lifting. Before digging the plant out check the extent of the root growth, this can be surprisingly wide and deep. Tie the branches together lightly to make digging under the plant easier. Lift the plant together with the entire root ball if possible. Place it on a material that can be wrapped around the roots to contain them during moving and prevent them drying out. Replant as soon as possible. If the plant needs to be left for a period before replanting surround the roots with loose soil, wrap in hessian, set in a cool and shady place and water regularly.
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
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.
Mycorrhizal fungi exist as an extensive network of fine threads, naturally occurring in the soil and spreading from the roots of plants. This symbiotic relationship, with fungal strands bringing up nutrients from deep in the soil to feed plants in exchange for sugars, produced in plants through photosynthesis, to feed the fungi.
Heavy cultivation in the garden can disrupt this beneficial, symbiotic relationship, breaking up and damaging the fine strands, as can the use of fungicides, fertilizer and manure. Keeping cultivation, fungicide, fertilizer and manure use to a minimum will reduce damage to the fungi and help protect the environment.
Mycorrhizal fungi products are available to sprinkle onto roots when planting out trees, shrubs, roses and edibles. These work naturally with the plant as it is growing, effectively extending the plant’s root system, drawing up otherwise inaccessible nutrients and encouraging strong, healthy growth.
At the end of summer blackberries will have stopped being productive, the fruiting stems become dry or damp and attract fungal disease. Over the summer new sturdy, green canes will have grown from the base, these will provide fruits the following summer. After the harvest has finished cut out all the old fruited canes to ground level. Blackberries are usually trained along a support structure of horizontal wires. Tie in the new canes, along the wires in a fan shape. Some varieties have soft enough growth to be twisted around the wires but most will need to be tied in. After pruning mulch the area around the plant with well rotted stable manure, keeping the mulch away from the canes.
Protecting Fruit Trees from Winter Moth
Fruit trees, particularly apple, pear, plum and cherry, can be infected with winter moth caterpillars. The wingless females climb trees and lay their eggs on trees in the spring. The caterpillars then feed on fruit buds reducing fruit production. Grease bands and barrier glues are a pesticide free method of control, however the caterpillars also provide an important food source for nesting birds in spring so a balance is needed. The bands do not protect from coddling moth and plum moth that damage growing fruits and whose females are winged and active in summer. Never use barrier glues that are strong enough to trap animals such as birds and mice. If used grease bands should be placed around 45cm above ground level in late October before the adult moths appear in November. For smooth barked trees pre prepared bands can be tied around the tree. For trees with rougher bark glue or grease applied to the bark works better as the moth can crawl along fissures in the bark under a grease band. The treatments need to be kept sticky and otherwise clear between late October and April.
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
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.
In autumn and winter glossy starlings gather in large groups in treetops and on telephone wires before congregating in larger numbers to roost for the night. In some places they form a single mass of whirling and swirling bird life, flying and swooping in unison, known as starling murmurations. These can be seen in city centres, reed beds, woodlands, cliffs and industrial buildings, growing to huge numbers as the winter progresses.
They may be gathering to keep warm or to share information on feeding sites before roosting for the night. No special equipment is needed to watch these fantastic acrobatic flights and the RSPB has information on the best places to see the murmurations.
Many attractive shrubs develop fruits and berries after flowering, their harvest enjoyed by birds and mammals, many can be eaten fresh or used in preserves or juices by humans too. Chilean guava, Ugni molinae is an small evergreen shrub with oval leaves, small pink flowers and delicious fresh fruits. Cornelian cherry, Cornus mas is a large shrub that has yellow flowers in late winter followed by small red fruits, sour when eaten fresh but good in juices or jams. Serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia is a small deciduous tree with white flowers in spring and striking autumn colour. The berries produced in mid summer are good fresh. Myrtle, Myrtus communis, an evergreen shrub has star like white flowers in summer and dark berries in autumn with a taste similar to juniper berries. Buffalow current, Ribes odoratum has clove scented flowers in spring and fruits that taste like sweet blackcurrants.
Gardening tasks in October
- 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
- Transplant oversized or incorrectly placed deciduous shrubs.
- 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.
- Continue deadheading
- Sow sweet peas for early flowering next year.
- 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.
- Create winter planted containers.
- Prune blackberries, prune out the old canes and tie in the new ones for next seasons crop.
- Finish pruning and tying in 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.
- Protect apple, pear, cherry and plum trees with grease bands to trap the crawling female winter moth. Wrap bands around the base of the trunks.
- Divide mature rhubarb crowns and replant.
- 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.
- Build a log, stone or brick pile in a sheltered corner as a shelter for wildlife.
- Begin to rake up leaves to make leaf mold.
- Renovate, scarify, aerate and feed lawns, lay 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.
- Hunt snails now to reduce their population for the following year.
- Continue weeding.
- Mulch bare soil with home made compost, leaf mould or well rotted manure to condition soil, retain moisture and suppress weeds.
- Grow your own hedge. Gather berries and fruits from plants such as wild roses, hawthorn, blackthorn and hazel to plant up immediately in pots. Transplant the following year.
- Remove, clean and store plant supports.
The Kinfolk Garden: How to Live with Nature
The book shows beautiful pictures of unusual gardens around the world, following instinct and creativity rather than prescribed gardening practice to create spaces that invite nature in and nourish the soul.
Tapestries of Life: Uncovering the Lifesaving Secrets of the Natural World
An investigation into the human relationship with nature and how plants and animals help sustain human life.
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Things to see, places to go
Free Gardening Workshops for Women
Learn how to grow and care for a garden. Beginners’ workshops from Women and Health. Fully accessible venue and participants with long term illness, survivors of sexual and domestic abuse and those unemployed or on low incomes are particularly welcome.
Women and Health, 4, Carol Street, London NW1 0HU
Plant stalls, workshops, talks and more.
23rd-24th October 10.00-17.00
The Garden Museum, 5, Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1 7LB