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This Month

Iris foetidissima - Stinking Gladwyn

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   I did something very brave this month, another of my mature plant replacements. This time it was of a large (huge in fact) lavender near to the front door. It was ok, but not a very good variety, far more foliage than flowers. Earlier this year I bought a replacement that I planted into a much bigger container to grow on so it was a better size when replacing the existing one. There were some flowers on this replacement, so I cut them off to encourage it to put energy into leaves and roots instead. As a testament I suppose to how good a flowering variety it is, it immediately replaced all the removed flowers without any other growth! If I'd done that to the existing plant that would have been it until next year. Anyway it did grow on pretty well and so I set about taking the old one out. Not a difficult job really, just surprising at how vast it had become, it covered around 12 square feet much of which was growing over the drive-way. It seems that as the braches grew horizontally, they started to trap dead leaves and other stuff so making it's own soil, so by the time I removed it, much of that area had 1-2" depth of soil and composted leaves into which all the horizontal branches were rooting. Quite a fascinating demonstration of how plants can take advantage of a small rooting space and then make their own growth medium to spread. It also meant yet another job for me to clean around the edges of this area and return it to the native driveway.

The replacement looks rather forlorn at the moment at a fraction of the size of the one that's gone. It'll more than earn its keep however as it'll be a far better garden plant than its predecessor and hopefully it's ability to take over new territories will be greatly diminished!

   One advantage of the warm month we've had and ever-growing grass is that I've been able to use the lawn mower to collect, shred and mix fallen tree leaves with some nice soft grass clippings that have raised the temperature and got them rotting very nicely from the outset. This is not usually a very realistic option as by now the grass has stopped and the lawn is so wet that using a mower just leaves track marks that will be there until April.

If you can though, it's a great way to deal with at least some of your fallen leaves. You need a rotary mower with a grass box and you'll end up emptying the box about 3-4 times more often than normal. Put the grass box on and set the blades to a fairly high setting, it's very satisfying to do as well, a bit like vacuuming the lawn clean.

   If you can't do this because you don't have the right sort of mower it is too wet or the grass has stopped growing, then you'll need to revert to more traditional means with rake or leaf blower. I don't like the idea of leaf blowers, noisy unnecessary things, I suppose the same could be said of my mower, but that's different in a nebulous manner that I am not going pursue until I've thought of something convincing.

The elbow power approach with rake is quieter and gives me some exercise that I just don't get enough of - it's also better for the environment but in my case that is an accidental extra rather than the reason I do it. Armed with a spring tined rake (like in the picture above) sweep across the lawn pulling the leaves together in piles that center in circles the radius of the rake handle plus an arm length wide. It's a good idea to rake from alternate sides, left then right so you don't get too tired too soon or end up like Popeye from one side and Olive Oyl on the other. This method also has the advantage that the lawn gets some degree of scarifying if you didn't do that last month - and the added grass, moss and thatch pulled up adds nitrogen and so helps the leaves to rot down all the better in the way that using the lawnmower to mix clippings does. Don't underestimate the amount of effort this involves, it's a pretty good work out and will need to be repeated a few times before the end of the month.

   Once you have all your leaves, the next problem is what to do with them.

Step one is to get rid of last years leaves if still have them sitting about - Many people regard a compost heap as somewhere you dump stuff ad infinitum without ever using what is made. If this is you, then the top 1/2 or 1/3rd depending on how old it is will still need to stay where it is to rot down, so lift this off to the side and dig into the rotted stuff underneath (no it's not horrible! stop making excuses) it should be dark and reasonably crumbly. Fork it into a wheelbarrow and spread it on the soil around your plants at least 3 inches deep near the base and for about 6-12" radius from the stem. It will soon get spread around by birds and worms and dragged down into the soil to add to the humous content of the soil. Even better if you feel like it is to fork it lightly into the top 3-4" of soil. Fork back the top part that you moved to the side and set up a second compost heap alongside so it doesn't happen again, this time you'll have a maturing heap and an adding-to heap.

The ideal thing to do with fallen leaves is to shred them and compost them properly like you would with any garden waste. Ordinary garden shredders are able to chew the leaves up (which is the best way to get them to rot down) but have a tendency to get clogged if the leaves are wet or if you try to put too much in at any one time. There's a product I came across recently that seems to only be available in the US at the moment that should solve the problem admirably. A shredder but with a nylon-line "blade" like a nylon-line strimmer upside down and in a box. Another possibility that I've heard suggested but not tried (I don't have a strimmer) is to put the leaves in a large garden waste bucket and shred them with an ordinary strimmer - though my guess is that it's one of great in theory, but virtually untried in practise ideas you hear. Cutting leaves at least once helps the decomposers to get in and start to break them down faster. Leaves that are intact are much slower to rot (like they are on the tree).

It depends on what volume of leaves you have to deal with, but I try to mix them in with other softer plant material where possible. How fast things rot down depends on a number of factors, one key factor is the carbon:nitrogen ratio of the mix. Tree leaves have more carbon and less nitrogen than is ideal, so adding lawn mowings - a good source of nitrogen, or other green material, weeds are fine, helps redress the balance. You could also add a compost accelerator, though I don't, or pee on the heap regularly, which I do.

   Make sure the mix is wet enough, if they're very dry jump on them while on the heap for a bit to break them up first and then give them loads of water. My heaps are about 1m x 1m x 0.5m and they get around 8-12 gallons for a good wetting (from the water butts fed from the shed roof next to the compost heap), just keep adding water until it starts to leak out the bottom and sides

The sides of the heap should be closed but ventilated, I use pieces of ply taken from old furniture (chipboard will even do, but only lasts a couple of years before it falls to bits) with 1" diameter holes drilled at 6" intervals. The top should be covered too, very important this, more so than the sides. Otherwise the heap either dries out or gets too wet and cold from rain. If the top can be insulated as well then all the better, old carpet (preferably synthetic so it doesn't rot itself) folded over is ideal.

If you really do have vast amounts of leaves, and a paucity of old furniture, then square pens made from a sturdy fence post (2x2" minimum) at each corner with sides of chicken wire are a good way of getting extra capacity quickly. But any of the other tricks you can do that I'm suggesting here will help, you really don't want unrotted leaves sitting around more than one year, when the next lot arrives!

   Once put together, the heaps should be opened up again after around 2 weeks, I force a broom handle through to the ground at about 1ft intervals to get some air in to let the bacteria breathe. If it's all going well, the handle will be distinctly warm when it comes out and the holes may even steam - most satisfying! Eventually momentum will slow down and falling early winter temperatures will slow things down a lot. When you get a chance next Feb or March, turn the heaps over to get it all going again.

Whatever you do, please don't burn the leaves (unless they're badly diseased) many local councils have recycling schemes for garden waste these days where you can take them.

   Leaves from trees or not, November is the major tidy-up month in the garden. Annuals will look very tatty by now if they're still going. Pull them up along with top growth of perennials such as Delphiniums, Lupins, Hollyhocks and the like once they've been cut down by frost. Cut the perennials off a few inches above ground level as the remaining stem will protect the crown and roots over the winter. There is a school of thought however that suggests leaving the dead remains to protect the soil and "label" where the plants are and whether they should be divided next spring.

   Between now and Christmas is the best time to plant trees and shrubs, trees can be obtained bare-rooted as soon as possible from nurseries. These are cheaper than pot-grown specimens and usually larger too. Many containerized trees are actually bare-rooted specimens that have their roots trimmed and are potted up next spring to be sold over the growing season when a field-grown specimen couldn't be.

They need to planted as soon as possible after receiving them, keep the roots moist and covered if this is not immediately possible with damp sacking or similar. Heeling-in in soil is the best solution if there is to be any greater delay than a few days, the trees/shrubs are "planted" at an angle of about 30-45 degrees and have their roots covered. If you have no room to do this, damp sharp sand will do, but needs to be checked for drying out.

Planting a bare-rooted tree or shrub is harder work than a container grown plant as the root spread is greater ( =better) so the hole has to be bigger ( =harder work to dig). Mix plenty of organic matter into the soil and make sure the soil is trod down well to avoid air-pockets. A thorough watering helps a lot too, not because the plant will need a drink, but to settle the soil around the roots.

Make sure you plant at the right depth, a line of lighter stem colour above the roots should indicate the previous planting depth. Don't try to cut corners by having the plant sticking out a bit, your tree or shrub is likely to be there for decades, surely it's worth an extra 15 minutes of your time at planting to ensure it does as well as possible? Tell yourself it's another 15 minutes worth of "reps" in your own personal gym.

Give the tree a good stake to support it initially and make sure the stake is planted well so it supports the tree and not the other way round! The purpose of the stake is to stop the roots from being rocked by the wind until they can establish and anchor themselves.

 Jobs / Tips

     Mow the lawn one last time before the winter if you get a chance when it's dry. Don't mow it if it's very wet as it often is at this time of the year as you'll make a mess of it which won't get a chance to recover before the spring. If you've a petrol mower, drain the fuel tank before putting it away for the winter and wipe the engine with an oily rag which you then use to cover it to protect against winter damp.

     Put wooden garden furniture away for the winter. Hardwood furniture will survive better than softwood (pine), but it will still start to rot in the constant damp and so if you won't be using it until the spring, best to store it under cover and away from the wet ground.

If you really don't have any room to store it under cover, then at least move it off the grass so the legs aren't wet, propped up against the house / shed etc. out of the way will reduce the amount of rain falling on it. A large plastic sheet or purpose-made cover works well too. Plastic garden furniture benefits from a bit of care, keeping it out of the weather will help keep it cleaner. Whatever you do, don't leave furniture on the lawn over the winter, you'll unlikely to move it much and at the very least, the grass under it will be shaded and will suffer.

     If you have a large shrub or tree that you have thought about moving from one place to another in the garden, then the late autumn and early winter is the best time to do it successfully. For deciduous plants, wait until all of the leaves have fallen off, for evergreens, reduce the branches by about a third of their current length (where sensible! not a good idea for many conifers that will look very stunted if treated in this way). Dig the plant up with as large a root-ball as possible, move it to its new position and re-plant as soon as you can. Mix plenty of well rotted (not fresh) organic material, garden compost or farmyard manure into the new planting hole to help get the itinerant plant off to a good start and pile a load on the surface as a mulch.

Stake if necessary to prevent the wind from rocking the roots until the plant gets established. A short stout stake just a foot or two high is better than a tall one that is tied to the tree at 4 or 5 feet above the ground. The point of staking is to prevent wind-rock of the roots.

     Take hardwood cuttings of trees shrubs and climbers. These are the easiest of all cuttings to take, but are rarely taken as the results are not evident for 6 months or more and most people don't like gardening when it's cold and wet! Take healthy 15-30cm lengths of stem (an excellent use for prunings) and place about 1/3rd in, 2/3rds out of the soil (extra organic matter a help but optional - sharp sand dug into heavy soils helps) in a shady spot (not sunny). Choose an out of the way part of the garden and leave the cuttings until late spring / early summer when you can dig them up and plant elsewhere - I often then put them into pots where there's a growth spurt on in pampered conditions. A cloche or coldframe over the cuttings helps, it doesn't have to be fancy or bought for the purpose, I use one made from old window frames discarded after replacement windows were put in a few years ago.

     Lazy gardeners tip. Spread organic material around your garden as a mulch now and come the spring it will have all pretty much have been taken underground and mixed in by the worms saving you an awful lot of digging in in the process. So if you've any garden compost left over and don't anticipate any need for it when doing any new planting, spread it around your beds and then just sit back and let nature take its course. It only really works this way at this time of the year as it stays moist all the time, not really drying out and earthworms are more active than they are in mid-summer when they often go into a kind of hot dry weather hibernation (aestivation).

It's also a useful thing to do with what remains in your compost heaps after the summer to make room for all the autumn leaves and the results of the tidy-up.

     Plant bare rooted perennials such as wall flowers, also the best time to plant new hedges as the plants are available as bare-rooted whips. Deciduous trees are available bare rooted now, they need a bit more seeking out but expect to pay half the price or less for a containerised tree of the same size. Frequently the bare rooted tree will be quite a bit larger than is available in a container.

     Place a net over your garden pond if you have one and if the are trees nearby.

     Plant any shrubs, perennials, trees etc. that you had planned to. This is an excellent time for planting and the best time of year. It gives the plants a chance to get a decent root system before they become dormant, it also protects the roots from the worst of frost being below the ground rather than in a container. Come next spring, the plants are there from the earliest time to make growth directly into the surrounding soil.

    Tidy the garden. This help to reduce the amount of hiding places and food that slugs and snails in particular will have to tide them over the winter, which is good news for you next year. Don't be too enthusiastic though, some plant seed heads can look good through the winter, particularly of ornamental grasses and some provide food for birds.

    Time is rapidly running out to plant spring flowering bulbs for next year. Spring flowering bulbs and shrubs

     Plants for November

New editorials are added every month, back again on the first of December

Archive - selected parts of previous year's newsletters from this month

Bare Roots and Balls for Winter and Beyond

Brrr !!, doesn't bare thinking about does it? The winter months are the best to plant trees of all sizes and establish hedges. This is because the plants have been growing strongly in the field and then are not uprooted until they are dormant. They have larger stronger root systems than container grown plants. Hence they are bare-rooted (no soil surrounding the roots) or root-balled (with a ball of soil intact around the roots).

Planting while dormant reduces stress on the plant. In the spring, when it wakes up again the new roots go straight into your soil so establishing better and more quickly. Late autumn and winter are the best times to plant trees and hedges of any size and particularly of larger than normal specimens (2m +). Do it at the right time for the plants rather than when you think about it (i.e. spring and summer).

Small (ish) ornamental trees

  • Plum, Victoria (self fertile) Malus (crab apple), red, golden yellow, or yellow 8ft x 8ft approx. mature size

  • Crab apples with white spring flowers. 12ft x 12ft approx. mature size

  • Prunus (ornamental cherry), Spring flowering in pale pink, white, dark pink. Upright, weeping or flagpole

  • Apples plant in 2's with a pollination partner for best results e.g. Cox, Discovery, Kidds Orange Red, Sunset 10ft x 10ft approx. mature size.

  • Pears plant in 2's with a pollination partner for best results e.g. Beth, Ormond, Winter Nelis, Conference. 12ft x 12ft approx. mature size.

  • Betula (paper or Himalayan birch)


Burglar proof  -  Along a boundary, near a conservatory or a short run near an exposed downstairs window for example. Ornamental plants with plenty of spikes and thorns that effectively deter burglars and intruders.

  • Pyracantha and Berberis, evergreen or deciduous, green leaves / golden leaves / red-purple leaves. Flowering and / or with autumn berries.

Laurels  -  large leaved evergreens, very lush. Plant at 60cm / 24in intervals

Traditional hedgerow  -  mixed hawthorn / maple / blackthorn / hazel Plant at 45cm / 18in intervals

What an incredibly warm October we had. The lawn has kept on growing and growing, whereas I'd normally be expecting to give it its last cut for the year sometime last month when it was dry enough, instead I've been mowing it every week as I do through the summer. My summer half hardy plants have been going strong for much longer than normal too, we haven't had a frost in Cambridgeshire to kill anything off directly yet, though various varieties have been flagging and I've removed them as they do so. The Petunias have gone, as have the Lobelias. My bright blue Morning Glory, while still producing flower buds profusely fails to open them properly and they wilt like so many unwanted miniature swirly ice-cream cones. The Geraniums however are hanging on there and still providing a good degree of very welcome late colour.

It's making it all the more difficult to make me plant the spring bulbs that I still have to do. Most of them are in now - mainly in containers - but I still have some that need to be planted and I'm determined to get them in instead of like often happens, come the spring I discover a poor neglected bag of some bulbs or other that are doing their best despite being in a plastic bag in the shed - Don't let it happen to you!

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