Here’s some advice about making the most of your garden in October.
General tasks and garden maintenance
Keep weeding and have a gentle tidy up in your borders but do try to resist the temptation of a thorough spring clean. Leave seedheads for the birds if you don’t want to collect them and as much cover as you can bear for wildlife who will appreciate the winter shelter.
Fallen leaves can be left to rot down (or collected for leaf mould), however diseased material is another matter; make it a priority to clear and burn it to prevent pests and diseases overwintering courtesy of your kind hospitality! Put the rest of your garden rubbish (apart from woody stems) in the compost.
Start your compost
If you haven’t already done so, start your compost going by buying a bin or building a partially enclosed area for a heap. It is vital to replace the goodness in soil after a hefty growing season and autumn produces masses of garden waste that will put invaluable organic richness back into the ground for next spring. Add a variety of different materials; spent vegetable and bedding plants, herbaceous leftovers, thatch, moss and cuttings from the lawn, weeds (but not the roots unless they have been through a shredder), hedge clippings, kitchen peelings and tea bags are ideal.
Turn once a week or so if you can and never add diseased or pest-ridden material, such as diseased rose petals, to your compost.
Clean out the greenhouse
It really is worth cleaning out your greenhouse thoroughly now your greenhouse crops are over; it will prevent pests from hibernating and leaping into action next spring! Wash the windows inside and out to allow maximum light in over the winter and scrub all benches, fixtures and glazing bars with disinfectant, making sure you hose the whole place down really well, especially dark and dusty corners. For effective fumigation, move all plants outside, shut the windows, light a sulphur candle in the middle of the floor, shut the door and wait until the smoke and fumes have completely dispersed several hours later. Your greenhouse should now be pest free.
Prepare your soil for next year
Start digging in compost, manure and as much organic matter as you can lay your hands on to replace the goodness in your soil. The earlier you start the better, especially if your soil is heavy. It can be left in a pretty rough state over the winter when the elements will break the clods down, making spring planting much easier.
Hardly an issue in October, but do keep an eye on your pots and containers in dry spells and check for wilting leaves before it is too late; all plants that keep their leaves continue to transpire, so should not be allowed to dry out completely.
Ensure trees or shrubs planted in the last couple of years on lawns or in areas of rough grass have a circle of clear earth around them – this should be kept clear to allow moisture to get to the roots. Mulching with bark or compost will help.
With the ideal planting conditions of autumn (warm moist soil), now is the time to plant container grown shrubs, trees, bushes, perennials and bulbs. Even in damp conditions it is worth checking the rootballs of shrubs and trees are adequately moist when planting – heavy rain will not necessarily penetrate a rootball that has been allowed to dry out, so if it feels light, plunge into a bucket of water before planting.
Rake fallen leaves
Don’t waste fallen leaves – given time they decompose into rich leaf mould. Rake up fallen leaves and throw them into a simple frame to make leaf mould. If left to linger on the lawn for long, the grass will turn yellow. Leaf mould takes about a year to mature (two in the case of oak leaves), makes a great top dressing for woodland plants such as rhododendrons and is an excellent and free home-grown substitute for peat.
Trees, shrubs and climbers
Plant trees, hedges, shrubs and climbers, ensure they are well watered and check regularly to see they do not become loose. Stake new plants if necessary to hold them firm against autumn winds.
Move conifers, evergreens and hedges, digging in organic matter around them. Water regularly, feed them in springtime with an organic fertiliser and if you live in an exposed or windy spot, stake them and protect with a windbreak of plastic mesh or something similar for the first year. Planting and moving any plant is far less traumatic for it whilst the soil is still warm. Dig as large a root ball as you can and wrap in hessian to move it with minimum disturbance. Ensure the new hole is large enough for the roots not to be squashed and the same depth as before. Remove the hessian gently, firm in the soil well with your feet as you fill the hole and water generously.
Prune tall shrubs by about half to protect them against wind rock. Trim conifers again if necessary, making sure you do not cut into the old wood.
Remove any diseased, spindly, old and unproductive stems and remember to burn any diseased material. Tie new shoots onto some form of support to prevent their thrashing about in autumn winds.
Keep off lawns when sodden. For established lawns – whilst the grass is still growing keep mowing once a fortnight with the blades on high for the final few cuts. Rake out the old dead grass and moss by hand or with a machine, spike to improve drainage again either by hand with a garden fork or with a machine, add a top dressing of soil/sand/compost mixed according to your soil type and feed with autumn weed and moss killer.
For new lawns, October is the last chance for sowing grass seed and just about the best time for laying turf. Remove weeds and stones, dig over thoroughly, adding organic matter and fertiliser, rake smooth, firm by walking up and down and rake again at right angles, repeating the raking and firming process until the area is flat and the surface is a fine crumb texture. Sow seed according to the packet instructions and lay turf in a brick pattern so no joints are in line. Water well and keep off for four to five weeks.
Bulbs, flowers and containers
Finish planting spring bulbs such as narcissi and crocuses – tulips can wait until November. Add grit if the soil is heavy and ensure pots and containers have plenty of crocks at the bottom. Bury bulbs at three times their own depth, tip upwards and ensure there are no air pockets around them. Use them to fill gaps in beds and borders, in formal gardens, in pots and containers, under shrubs and trees or naturalised in grass or woodland. For a natural look, throw handfuls of bulbs in the air and plant them where they land.
Pots, containers and hanging baskets
Turf out summer bedding even if it is still looking good – this will give winter and spring bedding a chance to get roots well down whilst there is still some warmth in the soil. Pansies are more likely to flower through the winter if they are well established before winter temperatures slow them down.
Plant winter bedding and spring bulbs in your pots, containers and hanging baskets now. Winter colour comes in all shapes and sizes; hardy cyclamen and heathers, violas, winter pansies and training ivies all make effective displays.
Stop feeding permanent plants and move any tender plants under cover before the cold sets in.
It’s important to lift containers that will be left outside over the winter onto pot feet – both for good drainage and to protect against frost damage.
Winter and spring flowering bedding
Replace summer bedding with winter and spring bedding. Plant out violas, wallflowers and primulas now for colour in the coming months. Clear old summer bedding, incorporate some organic matter into the soil and plant the newcomers in drifts for an effective display.
Once your vegetable patch is clear, dig it over and incorporate compost. Dig over your kitchen garden as soon as possible so the soil can be broken down by the winter elements. This is especially important on heavy clay soils. If you are short of compost, it is better to treat a small area properly than spread it too thinly over a larger area.
Leave pea and bean plant roots in the ground. Cut off the stems for the compost heap but leave the roots in the ground – they return valuable nitrogen to the soil, acting as a natural fertiliser. In your crop rotation plan, plant leafy crops such as brassicas after beans or peas, as they have a high demand for nitrogen.
Harvest everything left in the kitchen garden. If your runner beans are too stringy to eat, compost them or leave on the plant until brown for next year’s seeds. Dig up root crops – apart from parsnips which taste better after a frost -including carrots, beetroot and potatoes. Dry thoroughly before storing in boxes or paper sacks; remember to evict any diseased or rotten tubers or they will spoil the rest of your crop.
Plant crops such as winter lettuces, autumn onion sets, spring cabbages and, in mild areas, overwintering broad beans and garlic. Cover the trenches with fleece or cloches for insulation and net for protection from birds.
Remove any tatty yellow leaves from Brussels sprouts, cabbages, cauliflowers and broccoli as they perform no useful function and merely encourage disease.
Pot up mint, parsley and chives for the winter. Lift a clump, remove any yellow leaves, divide and plant into smallish pots using multi-purpose compost. Stand on a sunny windowsill, water well and wait for your winter crop to flourish.
Harvest any remaining raspberries, apples and pears. If high winds are forecast, pick your crop straight away – birds will not mind bruised fruit on the ground, but it will not keep.
Plant fruit trees and new strawberries. Clear out old plants and weeds, position the newcomers a foot apart in rows wide enough apart to walk between, make sure the crowns just show above the soil, firm them in well and water regularly if dry.
Dig up and split old rhubarb crowns, replanting with manure under each plant. Cut out the canes of blackberries which have fruited this year and tie in the new ones.