Although there is still plenty of colour in the flower garden at this time of year, it is the best time to start putting the garden to bed for winter. I find that as the autumn progresses and the season starts to change over, my enthusiasm for gardening work wanes and hibernation mode comes into play. This feeling is exacerbated by the frequent wet days and the increasingly untidy look of the perennial flower garden. However, all should not be lost through laziness, and if a dry Saturday comes up over the next few weeks, I will profitably spend a few hours preparing for whatever weather this winter sends.
Firstly it helps to look at those plants that are particularly precious and take cuttings. These can be started in a heated propagator and then over-wintered in a cold frame or greenhouse. If the weather gets very cold (below -10 degrees) it would be a good idea to take these into the house for the duration of the hard snap. Last winter my healthy and lovingly nurtured cuttings growing in the greenhouse were all lost to the hard frost, despite being covered with horticultural fleece.
At this stage, any of the biennial and perennial seeds planted over the last few months will be well grown into young plants and they can be planted out and labelled. These will still have time to do some growing and should survive the winter however cold it gets.
If you look at the overall garden layout now you can select those perennial plants that will last well over the winter. Most of these – for example, Allium, Eryngium, Sedum and Hydrangea – have attractive seed heads, foliage or flowers that look well after frost or snow, and that also provide food for birds.
Unattractive perennial stems, such as Aconitum (Monkshood) and Canturbury Bells, can be cut back when you see that they are withering. They should be cut back to base at an angle so that water does not get in to rot the crown. Euphorbia flowers should be removed as they can rot the rest of the plant. Often any sign that the plant existed will vanish as the plant disappears below soil for protection from frost, so it is important to label them.
Protect tender perennials
Tender perennials will need to be protected. You can use tubes of special thicker horticultural fleece to do this. It can be cut to size and tied at the top and weighted down with stones at the base. Alternatively a frame can be built with canes or willow stems around a large plant and then covered with clear polythene and tied.
Weed and mulch
Mulch the garden while there is still heat in the soil. Firstly though, remove the annual bedding plants that are dying back. Look around for self-seeded biennial and perennial plants and either remove these to a better position if necessary or label their position. The weeds can then be removed by hand or sprayed with an organic weed spray on a dry day. If spraying, allow a few days for absorption before covering the plant with a 10-15cm layer of mulch.
Mulches can include rotted bark, mushroom compost or your own garden compost. A good mulch for precious trees or herbaceous plants is well-wetted cardboard covered with a thick layer of mown grass. Now is a good time to use two-year-old composted leaves spread in thick layers around plants.
Plant spring flowering bulbs
In the gaps between plants, insert a group of narcissi, daffodils, crocuses, tulips or grape hyacinth bulbs. These should be planted at a depth three times the size of the bulb with the pointed end facing upwards. They look best in random groups of seven to 15 or more so that you get a good show. As they appear, I find that the sap rises, my enthusiasm for gardening increases and I get renewed enthusiasm for the gardening year ahead.
See you in the spring!
Patsy O’Sullivan is a member of Ballinrobe Garden Club, which meets on the first Tuesday of the month at 7.30pm in Gannon’s Hotel. The club’s aim is to learn and share information about growing flowers, fruit and vegetables. The membership is a mix of experienced growers and beginners.