This month has brought us some truly beautiful days. I still find myself entranced by the quality of the morning light and gorgeous blue skies of autumn in Norwich. We have enjoyed walking (and scooting) through showers of golden, falling leaves. There are more and more bare branches now. On wet days, we squelch and squerch through deep, shiny piles of leaves our way to school. On sunny days, the kids get a mad gleam in their eyes and go beserk. They bury themselves in crisp, tawny leaf drifts. They gather up huge armfuls to chuck at one another, or they fling them gleefully up in the air so they fall back down over their hair and clothes. There is much shrieking and giggling. Fragments of torn, decaying leaves follow us indoors on the soles of our shoes, and make their way into every corner of the house.
This is great time of year for taking stock of your garden. I’m busy re-imagining border shapes, and putting together ideas for a new one. I’m deciding where to move plants that are in the wrong spot. Perhaps neighbouring flower colours clash, they have outgrown their space, or I just don’t like them any more – your time is up, Goldenrod! And I’m planning how to improve areas like the veg patch. But there are a few, more straightforward jobs that I’ll be doing over the next few days, and these are things you could be doing now in your garden.
Plant a bare root rose
I’m planting two bare root roses this year: rosa Hot Chocolate and the stunning rosa Lady of Shalott (pictured below). I love the names of roses and usually choose ones that appeal to me for the name as much as the bloom. I ordered both when I was at the Hampton Court Flower Show in July. It’s a great opportunity to see all kinds of roses in full bloom, and buy a rose you might not find in your local garden centre. The scent in the rose tent is incredible! I seem to be developing a habit of ordering at least two new roses there, every year.
Bare root roses are dug up from the fields, and then sent directly to customers without being potted up. This is done in late autumn and winter when the plants are dormant. The advantage of buying your roses this way is manifold: they are much cheaper than potted plants, often half the price; you will have far greater choice as you can order from growers all over the country; and they establish quickly and will likely flower in their first year. What you receive through the post in November or December is a strange twiggy, thorny thing, that you must get into the ground fairly quickly (within 2-3 days).
For a quick guide to planting a bare root rose, watch this video. I dig a fairly generous hole, making sure all the roots will fit in it comfortably. Then I mix a little bonemeal into the soil in the bottom of the hole, and back fill with some shop-bought compost and the soil that was dug out of the hole. I try to make sure the grafting point is just above the surface of the soil, to avoid suckering from the root stock, and then firm the plant in by gently pushing down with my foot around the base. Then I give it a good drink of water and leave it alone until next year.
November is traditionally the time to plant your tulip bulbs. This is for two reasons. First, there is no need to plant them sooner. It’s the cold temperatures that spur them into root growth, so if you plant them earlier they will just sit in the ground doing not much. Secondly, planting later is a good way to insure against soil borne diseases which can damage the bulbs, as viruses and fungi are wiped out by the colder weather.
When planting your bulbs, make sure they’re at least four inches deep (from the top of the bulb). I like to use a pointy-ended trowel to lever apart the soil, pop the bulb in, and then close up the hole. There are specific bulb planting tools that you can use if you prefer. To achieve a natural look, gently scatter your bulbs across the area where you want them, and then plant them where they fall.
Some gardeners recommend lifting and storing your tulip bulbs after they have flowered in spring. I think that is a faff too far, so I don’t do it. I find that tulips survive quite happily in my free-draining soil, and they come back without any problems year after year (touch wood). But if you have heavy, clay soil, you might benefit from buying tulips that are marketed as perennial to save you lifting and replanting them every year. You may also find it worthwhile to put a handful of grit at the bottom of the planting hole to improve drainage.
Collect fallen leaves
I don’t advocate a particularly rigorous autumn clear up. I like to leave things messy and overgrown for the wildlife in my garden to enjoy over winter. Plus I’m quite lazy in autumn, and often prefer to read and write about gardening indoors when the weather is unfriendly. But I do think it is important to rake up and collect all of the fallen tree leaves from your borders and lawns. Rotting leaves could smother your plants and grass over the next few months, and cause disease and at worst death. And the leaves are a fabulous free resource, which you can easily turn into leaf mould.
I like to rake up all the leaves into neat piles, a task I find strangely satisfying. Then I go from pile to pile, stuffing armfuls of leaves into a pop-up storage bag.* When the bag is full, I tip the contents into a mesh cage that is hidden in a back corner of the garden. And so on. If you don’t have a mesh cage, you can put the leaves in bin bags, pierce a few holes in the sides and base, tuck them out of sight, and forget about them for the next two years. When you return to them, you should find they have turned into gorgeous, crumbly brown stuff. This is leaf mould, and it’s great! It can be used as a (free) mulch for your borders, or as (free) seed compost if you leave it even longer to rot down to a very fine texture. It’s worth noting that some trees produce better leaf mould than others.
(*This year I have bought some leaf collection plastic mitts which I am keen to try out. In our house, we call them my mole claws, in deference to the The Legend of Zelda.)
Today has been especially beautiful here, and tomorrow is forecast to be fine too. I’ll definitely be in my garden. If you get some sunshine, I highly recommend you go out and do some gardening too. Or, at the very least, wrap up warm, go outside and look at your garden.
“I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne