Although October is conventionally the month of turning leaves and brilliant colour, it is increasingly November that lights the autumnal torch brightest – at least in the first half of the month. But that leafy flame is becoming daily more fragile and the leaves stream to the garden floor with every wintry gust of wind. All these fallen leaves are gold dust and should be collected every last one to make leafmould which makes superb potting compost and is the ideal soil improver for all woodland plants and bulbs.
If November begins in autumn it ends unambiguously in winter. The days become shockingly short and the chances of frost – or worse – are real enough to make the business of protecting and tidying the garden urgent, so it is a busy month, especially as bad weather can bring work to a juddering halt for days or even weeks at a time. There is ground to be dug, deciduous hedges, trees and shrubs to be planted, tulips to be got into the ground and pots and the borders to be cleared and put to bed for the winter.
But for the gardener all November work is dictated by the weather. If there is a cold, clear spell then the days can be fresh and invigorating and much of the work of setting the garden to rest at the end of the year can be completed. In hope of these days I cut down as little as possible so that the dying stems can catch light and frost as well as provide cover and the seeds some food for birds.
But however positive I try and be, November is a low time of the year for me. December is little better other than it culminates in Christmas, which is fun. The days draw in like a noose and the garden seems to slowly implode, losing all the things that gave it worth. The only answer to this is to tend it dearly, looking after it like an ailing friend both to honour its better days and to prepare for the inevitable recovery in the New Year.
Frost always arrives at Longmeadow before the end of November – in fact this year we had frost in September and a few quite sharp frosts – down to -5 – in October. But even in a mild year there is no avoiding November frosts. I gathered in all the tender plants before the end of last month and protected those too big to move with a layer of fleece. I have one greenhouse wrapped up on the inside with a layer of bubblewrap and the other has a heater to keep the temperature above 5 degrees. That is enough to keep even the tenderest plant alive and well despite icy winds and arctic frosts all around it.
I am always happy when the ground rings under my boots like iron and the soil is locked intractably into position. It means that the cold is really working its magic for the garden. So what is that magic? After all, it is an unlikely benefactor. Less than 10% of the world’s plants are resistant to it, although a good number of those make up the majority of our British garden plants. However, it is like a purgative for the garden. Fungi, slugs, snails, viruses, insects, mammals like rats, mice and moles, even weak and damaged plants, all get blasted by it. Where it does not kill it does at least slow down proliferation. Just as a healthy person always feels better for a short fast or an icy plunge, so the garden seems to be healthier for a good freeze.
As long as you keep moving and there is not a strong wind blowing it is also surprisingly pleasant weather to work in. Frosty days are ideal for winter pruning – not least because you can stand on the soil without causing too much damage. The truth is that at Longmeadow there are only two kinds of winter weather, cold and dry or cold and wet. Give me cold and dry every time.
There is a huge pleasure to be had from watching birds at a bird table and by putting out daily food you can greatly increase the chance of survival for many and subsequent breeding success, especially if it is a very cold winter. Once you start to feed try and be as regular as possible with the supply, as the birds use up precious energy in coming to your bird table which is then wasted if it is bare. Also always put a saucer of water out for them to drink.
Obviously it helps for the food to be as calorific as possible and seeds, nuts and fat are best of all. Left-over pastry, bread and rice always get eaten fast and fruit is good, especially for blackbirds and thrushes. Grated cheese is popular as well as cooked (but not raw) potatoes. Avoid anything salty such as crisps, salted peanuts or bacon. I buy dried mealworms too which robins, tits and wrens gobble up greedily. If in doubt sunflower seeds and fatballs – preferably hanging so tits can land on them without being bullied away by more aggressive birds – are invariably popular. Another way of making sure that all the food does not get gobbled up by pigeons and starlings is to find an old log with lots of cracks and crevices and pour seed over it. The smaller birds will extract every last bit from the fissures that bigger ones cannot reach.
One of the great joys of winter-feeding birds is that you can place the bird table right outside a window so you get a really good sight of them. Have a bird book or app to hand so you can identify them and I always have a pair of binoculars ready too. You don’t have to be a gardener or twitcher to enjoy the diversity and richness of these hungry winter birds, many of which you would never otherwise see, and the more you find out about them, the more fascinating they become.
What to do in the garden this month:
November is tulip-planting time. This is, to my mind, the most important and best job of the month. It is actually something that can be done at any time between now and Christmas although the earlier they get into the ground the earlier they will flower. The essential thing with all tulips is to make sure that they have good drainage. This matters less if they are to be treated as annuals and dug up after they have flowered but even so they will be happier with plenty of grit or sand added to heavy soil. If they are to be permanent it is important to plant them as deep as you can – I have done so using a crowbar before now to make a hole 12 inches or more deep – and the deeper they are the stronger and straighter the stem will be.
If you are growing them in a container then drainage is easier and they do not have to be so deep and can also be planted in layers – a tulip lasagne, with an earlier variety such as ‘Orange Emperor’ planted deepest that will flower first, followed by a mid-season variety like ‘Negrita’ planted above it and then finally, in the top layer a late-season one such as ‘Queen of Night’.
Frost reduce Dahlias to blackened tatters so it will be time to bring them in. However the tubers will not be harmed unless the ground freezes, so do not panic. Wait until the top has fully died back and then cut back the top growth to 6 inches whilst they are still in the ground and carefully dig up the tubers, removing as much soil as possible. Stand them upside down for a few days to drain any moisture from the hollow stems and to let the tubers dry a little and then store them in a tray or pot packed with old potting compost, vermiculite, sharpsand or sawdust.
The idea is to keep them cool but frost-free, dark and dry but not to let them dry out completely or else the tubers will shrivel. I lightly water mine after layering them into large pots or crates and then check them every month to see if any are mouldy or shrivelling up.
Keep gathering fallen leaves, mowing them, keeping them damp and storing in a bay or bin bags to make leafmould. Leaves decompose mostly by fungal action rather than bacterial which means that dry leaves can take an awful long time to turn into the lovely, friable, sweet-smelling soft material that true leafmould invariably becomes. So either gather leaves when they are wet or be prepared to dampen them with a good soaking before covering them up with the next layer.
It also helps a lot to chop them up. The easiest way to do this is to mow them which also gathers them up as you do it. Of course if the leaves are too wet they will clog the mower up so I try and sweep and rake them into a line when dry, run the mower over them and then give them a soak with the hose when they are in the special chicken wire-sided bay. If you don’t have room for a dedicated leaf bay then put the mown leaves into a black bin bag, punch a few drainage holes in the bottom, soak them and let it drain and then store it out of sight. This system works perfectly well. Either way the leaves will quietly turn into leafmould over the next six months without any further attention. You can also use them in Spring in a half-decomposed state, as a very good mulch around emerging plants.
PLANT TREES, HEDGES AND SHRUBS
Continue to plant deciduous wood material such as trees, hedges and shrubs. From the beginning of this month nurseries will be selling bare-root plants. Buying woody deciduous shrubs, hedging plants or trees ‘bare-root’ – ie straight from the ground and not in a container – tends to be much cheaper, better quality and offers a much wider choice. But these must be planted when dormant so this is becoming a job that needs doing urgently. Plants in pots can wait a little longer if necessary.
As soon as you receive the plants give them a good drink in a bucket of water and keep them moist until ready to plant. Prepare your planting hole, remembering that a wide hole is much better than a deep one, and do not let the roots dry out even for a minute as they will die back very quickly so keep them covered or soaking in a bucket of water until the very last minute. Plant firmly, keeping all the stem above soil level, stake if necessary, water well and then always mulch thickly.
PLANTING PAPERWHITES FOR XMAS
Paperwhite daffodils, Narcissi papyraceus, will be flowering for Christmas if you plant them at the beginning of November. Unlike most daffodils, it is native to the Mediterranean and does not require a period of vernalisation – or cold – to induce flowering. So plant the bulbs just beneath the surface of your compost in a container (ideally with drainage but a normal bowl can be used if you add some charcoal to keep the soil sweet) keep them watered but not soggy and place in a warm, light place. The bulbs will grow strongly and if indoors in the warmth flower in 4 weeks. To delay and prolong flowering keep them cool but frost-free.
Hardwood cuttings are easy to take, slow to grow roots but a remarkably straightforward way of creating new shrubs, bushes and even trees from existing favourites. Fruit bushes, roses, any flowering shrub or tree are ideal for this method of propagation. Unlike growing plants from seed, cuttings always ‘come true’ – in other words they are exactly like the parent plant so it is the best way of reproducing favourite plants as well as being almost totally trouble free and needing no extra equipment or shelter.
Cut a 12-24 inch length of straight stem the thickness of a pencil of this year’s growth, and divide it into lengths between 6 & 12 inches long. Cut straight across the bottom and at an angle at the top so you remember which way up to plant it and to provide an angle for water to run off.
Strip any remaining leaves from it so you have bare, straight stems and either place the cuttings so only one third is above soil level in a deep pot filled with very gritty compost (4 or 5 can fit into each pot) or outside in a narrow trench backfilled with gritty sand to ensure good drainage. Leave them until next autumn, watering well once a week and a good percentage will make young plants ready for potting up or planting straight out.
WASHING SLIPPERY PATHS
At this time of year brick and stone paths can be very slippery and dangerous. This is due to algae that grows on the surface, especially if wet and shaded and at this time of year they may stay wet and slippery for months. The best way to reduce the slipperiness is to wash off the algae with a pressure hose (which can be hired by the day). When this is done brush in sharpsand. If the path is brick or stone the porous surface will absorb some of the sand. A quicker – but still quite laborious – alternative is simply to work sand in with a stiff brush without the washing. Either way you have a very effective way of making a path safe without resorting to chemicals.