Still plenty to do
It’s easy to think that because winter has arrived we can hang our gloves up and resign ourselves to the fact that there’s little that can be done out in the garden. However, even though the days are getting shorter, there is still plenty that we can do in the daylight hours that we do have to get the garden ready for winter.
· Dahlias will carry on flowering until the first frost cuts them down. When they collapse, lift and store the tubers in a cool, frost-free place over winter when they can be potted up for planting out in spring. I also leave about half of them in the ground with a thick layer of compost to protect them.
· Many of us still have bags of spring-flowering bulbs that we haven’t got round to planting. Don’t despair, most bulbs will catch up and tulips, in particular, benefit from later planting when they are less likely to suffer from fire blight. Plant them in pots in layers with small bulbs such as narcissus ‘Snow Baby’ or iris reticulata and top off with wallflowers or hellebores.
· Remember to raise your pots with bricks or feet to prevent waterlogging which can make them vulnerable to freezing and cracking.
· Prune herbaceous perennials and roses by about one third to prevent wind rock – further pruning can be done in spring.
· Clear up leaves as they fall. Don’t put them on the compost heap but gather them into black sacks and leave them to rot down over the next year.
· I always plant broad beans now. They get away to an early start and seem to be more resistant to chocolate spot.
And let’s not forget that there are plants out there that give us flowers and foliage in autumn and winter. You just need to know the ones to look for.
Last month I spent a fascinating morning at Daylesford Organic in the company of Rosy Hardy of Hardy’s Cottage Plants, who gave an entertaining and informative talk about ‘Autumn Flowering Perennials’. There was so much content, it’s impossible to cover much of it so I am going to pick out her tips for what I thought were the stars of the show:
· Anemone ‘Frilly Knickers’ bred by Hardy’s Cottage Plants. We are all familiar with the tall pink or double white Japanese anemones – and they do a sterling job in darker, moist corners of the garden. Some of the more recently bred varieties are intended to be smaller and clump forming rather than spreading by runners; ‘Frilly Knickers is one of these. This free-flowering variety will grow to no more than 60cm; its ruffled, semi-double flowers are white suffused with purple, and the backs of the flowers are brushed with deep purple – it will flower well into September. It’s a stunner!
· Astrantia major ‘Superstar’ PBR: I am very fond of astrantias but find they are often mis-sold and I am still searching for a large, clean white form with green tips. Well, here it is. ‘Superstar’ is a large-flowered white with a hint of green to the bracts and veins. Although I deadhead my astrantias, I have not cut the flower stems back to the base which will encourage a second and a third flush of flowers. Rosy recommends the recently-bred ‘Burgundy’ as a good red form. Astrantias do best in moist soil and part shade.
· Echinacea ‘Sunseekers Rainbow’ = Ifecccra (sunseeker Series): I mentioned in my RHS Chelsea journal that I had been impressed with the variety of new echinaceas on offer but how I wish I had heard Rosy before I recently planted echinaceas in my new border! She advises that we buy them in flower (pictures are often inaccurate in reproducing the hues of these bright flowers) in the autumn but that we deadhead them after flowering and keep them in a dry place for the winter – a shelf in a greenhouse or potting shed is ideal. In spring, water them to get them going again and, once they are growing, plant them out giving them space as they do not like competition in their first season.
· Gaura (now renamed Oenothera): I had always thought gauras were not hardy and have ripped them out of pots and borders in autumn but they are hardy perennials that like a sunny border with deep soil (like penstemons or asters they die back in winter leaving their brittle stems above ground and will come back in spring). Pinch out the young growth to encourage bushiness and deadhead back to leaf growth to encourage branching and more flowers. As flowering finishes cut plants back by half to prevent wind rock and then in spring cut back again to 5cm. Rosy showed us a very attractive, new, Hardy-bred variety: ‘Freefolk Rosie’ has pink picotee flowers and variegated foliage which would look stunning in pots for the summer (but not thrown away at the end!)
· Helleborus x ericsmithii ViV ‘Valeria’ and ViV ‘Victoria’: in the last few years breeders have put a lot of effort into extending the flowering season of these wonderful plants; you can now find hellebores that begin to flower in September and the season goes on to March. ‘Valeria’, with its attractive creamy flowers and prostrate leaves, is a good plant for the top of a pot above bulbs and at the end of the season can be planted out in a moist woodland setting; ‘Victoria’ has wonderful upward-facing, single burgundy blooms and green anthers – there must be a place in every garden for hellebores.
I hope that gives you some food for thought as we head into winter. Soon it will be time to settle in front of the fire with seed catalogues and plan for 2022!