The first three weeks of September this year were as good as I can ever remember them. In fact one of my neighbours – a sprightly 90 year old – told me that the last time that he remembered a September as good as this was the Battle of Britain – 1940!
But October is still unambiguously an autumnal month from first to last. In the first week or so the days can be warm and the garden still full of summer flowers but there is a real sense that this is borrowed – and liable to be taken back overnight with the first sharp frost or, more frequently, the autumnal storms that rip the leaves streaming from the trees.
The gardener notices more changes in October than perhaps any other month. It can be stunningly beautiful, especially if late summer has been marked by warm days and cold nights, stimulating the leaves to store sugars and then display the full range of their autumnal hues. But October weather dictates everything. Mild weather blunts the edge of the October display, cloud obscures and smudges it and rain and wind batter the borders. The line between fading glory and abandonment can be very fine indeed in October.
Above all time in October is running out. The days are getting shorter, the weather worse and at the end of the month the changing clocks brings nightfall at five and evenings in the garden are lost for another 5 months. So it is a busy time, putting the garden to bed and preparing it for next spring – and all against the autumnal clock.
Every sunny day is borrowed and the light – although often the softest and most golden of the whole year – is slipping steadily away.
STAG HEAD OAKS
Last year a huge oak tree blew down from the hedge that bounds the edge of our garden. Its true size was only really apparent to me once it was lying on the ground. I counted the rings on one of the branches fairly near the top of the tree my eyesight gave out after 102. The tree itself was probably four or five times that age – which in oak time, is middle-aged – so a piece of history as old as Windsor castle.
It was a ‘stag-headed’ tree. These are seemingly more dead than alive with most of its branches leafless and worn like antlers – hence the name. It is a phenomenon whereby the bark and sapwood of the upper branches – sometimes the vast majority – have rotted but the tree grows a new and completely healthy crown. They can remain in this way for at least 100 years, seemingly clinging to life through a few leaves with the vast majority of the tree a gaunt skeleton. But despite its appearance, the tree is as alive as you or I.
Despite this, many Stag heads have been needlessly cut down on the faulty assumption that they were dead. But one of the remarkable aspects of oaks is that they very rarely die of old age. Most end up, as this one did, having been blown (or cut) down long before anything like old age finishes them.
No other plant in Britain is so important for hosting and encouraging wildlife as oaks and no other so resolutely able to adapt and survive even near-total decay.
Given an oaks astonishing ability to absorb and host a myriad forms of life , the inevitable fungi that are admitted to the dead wood do not seem to damage the heart wood. Certainly when I started to saw it up even the apparently ‘dead’ wood had plenty of material hard enough to quickly blunt the chain saw.
Whilst it was stretched out on the ground like a toppled giant it was fascinating to see just how many holes and hollows there were right up the trunk and throughout the larger branches. Each one of these would have been a potential home for birds or bats, let alone the mass of different insect and fungal life that live in and on the bark and the leaves.
Oaks might seem to belong to an impossibly distant future but now is a good time to plant one in for people and a vast host of wild creatures to still be appreciating in 500 hundred years time.
What you should be doing in the garden this month:
- If you do not already posses them, invest in horticultural fleece and some cloches. The point is that these are only useful if you have and employ them before you need them and there is no guarantee that there will not be a hard frost in October. Cloches are very good for rows of vegetables, keeping them dry as well as warm (although I always leave the ends open – happy to trade some heat for some ventilation) and fleece is the best temporary protection against frost, either laid out over small plants or draped over shrubs and bushes.
- Keep deadheading throughout October, particularly the equitorial plants like dahlias. This will extend their flowering season and squeeze the last bloom from them.
- Save yourself a fortune by collecting seeds from perennial plants, using paper (not polythene) bags. Always label seed packets immediately. Store in a cool, dry place until ready for sowing.
- It is not too late to take cuttings and there is no more satisfying process in the garden if it is successful. Choose healthy non-flowering growth, use a sharp knife and very free draining peat-free compost (add an equal measure of grit or perlite to the compost) and keep the humidity high. Most things will strike now and overwinter successfully without needing potting on.
- It is worth taking trouble to store the fruit so that it lasts as long as possible. Only store perfect apples, which discounts nearly all windfalls. A cellar is ideal or a cool garage, but polythene bags, folded not tied and punctured with pencil holes work very well. Put the bags somewhere cool, dark and dry.
- You can plant or move deciduous trees, shrubs and hedges even if they are still in leaf as they have finished growing and the soil is still warm so the roots will begin to grow immediately. I once moved a 4 year old, 20 metre long hornbeam hedge in October. It never batted an eyelid and grew away the following spring stronger than ever. It is essential, of course, to give them a really good soak when you do so and to repeat this weekly until the ground is really wet or the leaves have fallen. But if you are planting or moving a number of trees or shrubs, it is best to start with any evergreens before deciduous plants as they need to maximise root growth before winter kicks in.
- Plant or move biennials such as forget-me-nots, wallflowers, foxgloves, onorpordums and mulleins. Dig up healthy verbena bonariensis, cut back and pot up to use to take cuttings next spring and take cuttings of penstemons and salvias.
- Continue planting spring bulbs but wait another month for tulips.
- SOW SWEET PEAS – By sowing sweet peas in October you will have bigger plants with a stronger root system that should give flowers next spring earlier and last longer. But the disadvantage is that these young plants will need storing and some protection over winter if the weather is bad. So I sow some now and another batch in February and spread the risk.
- I sow three seeds in a three inch pot although root-trainers also do the job very well. Use a good potting rather than seed compost. Put them to germinate on a windowsill or greenhouse and once the first leaves have grown, place outside in a cold frame or protected spot. They only need protection from hard frosts, mice and becoming sodden, so do not provide any extra heat. They will be ready to plant out in April.
- Cut back and compost all rotting foliage in the borders but leave as much winter structure as possible.
- Start digging any ground that you want to replant this winter or use next spring. Doing it at this time of year means that it is accessible, dry and there is more daylight to do it in! But if this seems daunting do 30 minutes a week in two 15 minute sessions. Leave the soil in large slabs for the weather to break down over winter.
- If you have raised beds – and if not October is an ideal month for making them – mulch them with an inch or so of garden compost as they become clear, leaving the worms to work it in ready for sowing or planting next spring.
- Unless the weather is bad most leaves do not start falling until November but gather them all and store every last one – nothing makes for a better soil conditioner or potting medium. If you do not have somewhere to store them sort this out early in the month. A simple bay made from four posts and chicken wire is ideal.
- Sow ‘Aquadulce’ broad beans outside for an early harvest next May or June and Sow sweet peas in pots and over-winter in a cold frame.
- Keep cutting the grass for as long as it keeps growing, however it is better to have the grass too long than too short over the winter months. Rake out thatch and moss and add to the compost heap.
- Cut off any hellebore leaves that are obviously diseased and mulch around spring-flowering perennials with a 50:50 mix of last year’s leaf mould and garden compost.