Autumn is a great time to make plans for next year. Take a good, long, hard look at the garden and be your harshest critic. Think what you have got wrong and be ruthless – whatever didn’t perform this year take out and either donate to a friend or pot up and give to your nearest charity shop or jumble sale. When plants don’t perform it means that they are unhappy in their surroundings. That is why it is important to read a bit about where they originate. A plant that is native to woodlands is not going to do well in a sandy garden on a windswept hillside by the sea, likewise a plant that is native to the Spanish mountains will not thrive if plant in a soggy bog garden. If you haven’t figured out what kind of soil you have do so now. Broadly speaking you will have sandy, clay or loamy soil. Clay soil is heavy and frequently waterlogged. This soil benefits from the addition of gritty material to improve drainage but is generally very fertile. You will find keeping Mediterranean or alpine plants tricky. A sandy soil is very light and free-draining, so you will need to add lots of organic material to improve fertility, and you will be best going for drought tolerant and seaside plants. A loamy soil is the perfect growing medium, and if you have it, you are very lucky and grow almost anything. Soil Ph. is the other major consideration when planning what to plant in your garden. You can buy Ph. soil testing kits in all garden centres and if you have an acid soil, lime lovers are out. Go instead for all those plants many of us would love to grow but can’t without a lot of faff and bother and importation of copious amounts of ericaceous compost – Rhododendrons, azaleas, blue hydrangea and go for a lovely Robinsonian wild garden look. If you have an alkaline or limey soil, it tends to be chalky and needs plants that will not just tolerate but thrive in such conditions. Limey soils are perfect for creating wildflower meadows and will take lots of drought tolerant species and are suitable for Mediterranean style gardens. Last of all consider the shape of your beds and your hard landscaping. Avoid curvy beds and go instead for a sharp formal layout. You can soften hard edges with plant material, but a strong series of straight lines gives a better framework to work from.
September and October truly are the very last gasp to be sucked from the fag-end of summer. It is as if the herbaceous plants know that their number is up and they put their last energies into a final terrific show. Dahlias and Asters are the stars of the season, along with Sedum, Rudbeckia, Echinacea and other early-flowering plants which, if cut back immediately after flowering, will give a second flush now. To keep the garden looking its best and to avoid that dried out, worn out, dusty appearance keep deadheading and staking.
As the nights become shorter and colder it is time to think about bringing in tender plants, certainly don’t risk leaving them out in October as there can be surprise hard frosts around Hallow’een time. Visiting gardens is a great way to learn new tricks and get tips. This summer I got a great lesson from Josie Murphy on how to keep those summer stalwarts, pelargoniums (called, erroneously geraniums,) going from year to year. Many people just throw them out or allow them to take their chances with the frost as they have no greenhouse or cold frame, whereupon the generally turn black and rot. I generally try and bring a few indoors where they sit looking untidy and miserable on the windowsill. Josie, who has a really spectacular display, says she just puts them in the shed in autumn. She really does; she puts them into the semi-dark shed, allows them to dry out and ignores them until spring. She tells me that she then takes the plants out and sits the pots in buckets of water laced with plant food and once they are fully soaked she leaves them in a sunny spot to come on again. I am determined to try this as I don’t see why it shouldn’t work as I have had great success doing exactly the same thing with spring flowering cyclamen. Once the plants have finished flowering I leave them to dry out, in their pots and chuck them in an out of the way shady spot in the garden. After Christmas I pop them into window boxes and feed and water them and they generally flower really well.
Another tip I got on my visit was from Josie’s husband Brian, who has pipes attached to all the gutters around the roof. Some pipes feed water butts, which is something we should all be doing now we are faced with water charges (and it is very green). The thing that really impressed me is that Brian has rigged up one pipe which is used to feed a pond. When rain is very heavy the pond overflows into another pond below it, and then another, creating a lovely cascade, aerating the water and eventually overflowing into a small man-made stream which runs to the bottom of the garden. No pumps or fancy gizmos are necessary, just some flexible plastic piping and ingenuity.