Last month, I began by reflecting that October could either be glorious or ghastly. This year it’s been largely glorious; a month of unusually mild, sunny and settled weather with the bonus of enhanced autumn colours thanks to the long, dry summer. The upshot is that we can safely push many of October’s gardening jobs into November (it might be worth looking back at Your Garden In October to see if there’s anything you missed). However, it’s not time to hang up your Wellington boots yet, since our luck is about to run out.
If there’s a phrase that sums up November, it’s ‘do or die’. This might sound harsh, but the ominous ‘first frost’ that gardeners mutter about signals the demise of all that’s tender and much that’s precious. You can take a gamble for so long, but ultimately you’ll need to act if you want to save certain plants.
There are two groups of activities to focus on in November - protection and planting. Alpines, succulents, tender perennials and delicate ferns need shelter to help them through the winter. Don’t put this off beyond the end of the month or the first cold, wet weather; otherwise, you can expect casualties. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. November is the perfect time to plant garlic, tulip bulbs and any other spring flowering bulbs you’ve not dealt with yet. Bare-rooted plants become available from nurseries: you should plant them immediately to prevent the roots from drying out.
December is a busy month for many reasons, and I find it best not to have urgent tasks hanging over me when I’d rather have my slippers on in front of a roaring fire. Gird your loins and prepare the garden for winter so you can have a month off to enjoy the festivities.
Meanwhile, at some point this month, we’ll be treated to dazzling displays of autumn colour. As I type, the predominant colours are green and yellow, but as temperatures drop, they’ll develop into oranges, reds, bronzes and browns. Turn your attention to the wildlife still active during autumn and winter and provide clean water and food sources. Even if it’s the first time you’ve done so, you’ll be amazed at how quickly animals find you!
November at a Glance
Plan what you want to grow next spring and tackle the seed catalogues as they arrive in your letterbox. Take stock of your gardening gear and make a point of nudging your loved ones to replace anything that’s worn out. I know a great place to shop ;-)
Sow sweet peas, broad beans, peas and rocket.
Take cuttings of trees and shrubs. If you can’t move tender perennials, take cuttings of these as insurance against a deadly cold snap.
Plant tulips, bare-rooted shrubs and trees, rhubarb crowns, garlic, bulbing onions and spring cabbages. Divide perennials and grasp the last opportunity to lay turf.
Prune roses and late-flowering shrubs to prevent wind damage. Start to assess the structure of fruit trees, deciding where they may need pruning. Cut away the old stems of autumn-fruiting raspberries, blackberries and loganberries.
Harvest apples, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflowers, celeriac, grapes, kohlrabi, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, land cress, leeks, lettuce, oriental greens, parsley, parsnips, pears, spinach, swedes, sweet fennel, turnips, winter cabbages and winter radishes. Collect seed from flowers and vegetables you’d like more of, ensuring it’s left to dry thoroughly before storing.
Pick chrysanthemums, nerines, any remaining dahlias (catch them the day before the first frost) and stems thick with autumn berries, ensuring you leave ample for the birds.
Make sloe gin, jams, chutneys, preserves and pickles. Bag up seeds to give as gifts at Christmas.
Buy pruning tools, shears, bulb planters, pot feet, warm gardening gloves, new wellies, a protective gardening apron, sweet pea seeds, and garden-themed Christmas ornaments. At some point in November, the price of spring-flowering bulbs will be reduced - keep an eye out for bargains. Order bare-rooted plants for immediate delivery.
Enjoy the autumn kaleidoscope, responsibly made bonfires and professionally organised firework displays, seeing your breath in the chill air, frosted cobwebs, cosy afternoons in the potting shed, the season’s first sprouts, parsnips, mince pies, and hearty soups made from homegrown produce.
Visit one of the many gardens and landscapes that light themselves up during winter afternoons and evenings. Illuminations are held at Kew Gardens; RHS Harlow Carr, Bridgewater, Hyde Hall, Wisley and Rosemoor; Edinburgh Botanics; Bedgebury Pinetum and Westonbirt Arboretum.
Further Advice From Dan Cooper Garden
- How And When To Plant Spring-Flowering Bulbs
- How To Protect Tender Plants Over Winter
- How To Prune Like A Pro
With the shortest, coolest days of the year approaching, houseplants will be growing at a much slower rate. You want to grow them ‘hard’, with minimal water and food, so they remain compact and healthy until spring. Here’s a snappy, ten-point plan for the next three months:
- Reduce watering, only giving plants a drink when the compost surface becomes dry.
- Don’t allow plants to stand in saucers of water - pour away any excess.
- Stop feeding until March.
- Keep plants away from cold drafts, open doors and hot radiators - they detest all of them.
- Remove dead leaves and flowers but be reassured that some leaf loss is natural.
- Maximise the amount of light plants receive by moving them closer to windows and roof lights.
- Dust leaves often so that they’re able to photosynthesise efficiently.
- Keep an eye out for pests that multiply quickly in a warm environment, such as aphids.
- Avoid buying new plants. If you can’t resist, don’t allow them to catch a chill on their way home. Never buy houseplants that have been displayed outside in the cold.
- Start cyclamen, amaryllis, hyacinths and daffodils into growth for flowers at Christmas and early in the New Year.
Potting Shed & Greenhouse
There’s always plenty to be done under cover when the elements fail to oblige.
- Take time to clean all your hand tools, secateurs, knives, lawnmowers and hedge trimmers. Start by removing dirt, grime and plant sap with a stiff brush and then sharpen blades where appropriate. Tighten nuts and bolts that have become loose over the summer and lubricate moving parts. If you’re not planning to use your tools over winter, coat the metal parts with Camellia oil to prevent corrosion caused by moisture in the air. Always store tools dry - keep an old rag to hand for drying them on wet days.
- It’s been a vintage year for tomatoes, whether you grow them outdoors or under glass, but they will stop ripening naturally at some point. Pick any that have reached full size and pop them in a box, drawer or paper bag with a banana or other ripe tomatoes. Within 2-4 days, they’ll have developed colour and flavour. Remove the exhausted vines and compost them, enjoying those last few wafts of tomato scent.
- Sow sweet peas in deep pots for early flowers next summer. November is ideal as the weather is consistently cool and the seedlings will concentrate on producing roots rather than shoots. Choose pots or root trainers that will stay the course - I find that cardboard tubes and paper pots disintegrate or develop mould before the weather is mild enough for planting out in spring.
- Check plants coming in from the garden for pests, especially slugs and snails. These pesky creatures are still active and can cause much damage within the confines of a greenhouse. Remove old flowers and yellowing leaves to reduce the risk of diseases spreading.
- Start to pick early autumn sowings of salad leaves including lettuce, mizuna, mustard and rocket. Pluck the outer leaves, discarding any that have been munched. Leave the centre of the plant to continue growing over winter.
- Drain hoses and irrigation systems, put away garden furniture and carefully store cherished terracotta pots that might be damaged by frost.
Terrace & Balcony
As winter approaches, terraces and patios assume an important role in the garden, providing space and structure as the plants that blurred them fade back. Grasp the opportunity of a fine day to clean them up. Pale surfaces like sandstone reflect light into the garden on dark days, while dark materials, including slate, absorb heat when the sun shines.
- As plants shed their leaves, flowers and fruits, algae can develop, making paving slippery and dangerous, especially in shaded areas. The same applies to muddy paths. Sweep regularly and choose a fine day to jet wash smooth surfaces - I’m always gobsmacked at how much grime accumulates throughout the summer. Brushing sharp sand over the surface will act like a scouring pad, removing dirt and filling any gaps. Crucially, avoid using chemicals that might find their way into drains and damage surrounding plants.
- Continue planting spring-flowering bulbs in containers. Whether you plant one variety per pot or use the ‘lasagne method’, choose shorter, stouter varieties that are less likely to blow over or flop when they bloom. Top pots with horticultural grit to deter pests, prevent moss from growing and give a neat appearance.
- If you’re not fond of bulbs or want a more permanent display, try planting a container with skimmia, winter box (Sarcococca), hellebores, heathers and small-leaved ivy. Although not all the plants demand it, my tip would be to use peat-free, ericaceous compost and water with rainwater when the compost gets dry.
- The wind is your enemy if you garden on a balcony. You will know best where it strikes and causes the most damage. Protect plants that stick their heads above the parapet or reduce their height to stop them from getting buffeted. Grouping plants closely together will create warmth, humidity and shelter. Bamboo or willow screening can help to diffuse strong wind but it's not in keeping with the architecture of every building. You may need permission before attaching screening to permanent structures if you're renting.
- Even if the month begins mild, flowering plants will soon start to thin and recede. In parts of Europe and America, where it gets cold very quickly, the frozen, skeletal forms of desiccated perennials and grasses bring a whole new dimension to the winter garden. Sadly, our damp climate means that the top growth of herbaceous plants tends to blacken and soften before collapsing like a stupefied tarantula - not such a majestic scene! There are exceptions like teasel and pampas grass; these should be left intact as food and nesting material sources.
- Now is your final chance to secure the future of tender perennials such as bananas, begonias, angel’s trumpets (Brugmansia), cannas, coleus, fuchsias, gingers and pelargoniums. Lift the plants, trim the roots and tidy the upper portions to a manageable size. Pot them in fresh compost and overwinter them in a frost-free environment. They'll need good light and warmth if you want them to keep growing. If that can’t be provided, bananas, brugmansias, cannas, fuchsias and gingers will cope perfectly well in a frost-free, unlit garage, basement or loft until they start growing again in April.
- If tender plants have become too large to move, the best thing you can do is reduce their exposure to the killer combination of wet and cold. You can do very little about cold without bringing the plant inside, but you can control wet, which includes rain, humidity and condensation. Pack the crowns of vulnerable plants like tree ferns and bananas with absorbent straw and then wrap them with fleece. Check regularly for signs of rot and remove the wrapping during warmer spells to allow air to circulate.
- Cover autumn-sown hardy annuals with cloches in cold or exposed gardens.
- Provided the ground is not frozen, conditions are ripe for dividing clumps of perennials. A Japanese Hori Hori will make light work of the job, as will a sharp spade.
- Chrysanthemums can continue flowering until Christmas, but they need support and protection from heavy rain. I cut them as soon as one or two flower buds have opened on each stem - that way, they’re not blemished. If you keep the vase water clean and recut the stems every few days, chrysanthemums can last for 2-3 weeks.
- After the first frost, lift dahlias and gladioli, cutting the stems back to around 5cm. Leave them somewhere warm and dry for a couple of days, and dust any damaged tubers or corms with yellow sulphur. Store them in open crates or boxes covered with old potting compost, sand or straw - this needs to be dry but not bone dry. Keep the crates in a frost-free, dark place and check them often to ensure they’re still healthy. In milder parts of the UK, you can leave dahlias in the ground, but it’s still wise to cover them with a deep mulch of old potting compost, mushroom compost or fallen leaves for insulation.
Trees, Shrubs & Lawns
- Plant bare-rooted trees and shrubs, including roses, as soon as they’re delivered. If you can’t plant immediately, unwrap and plant them together in a temporary hole until you’re ready to find them a permanent home (this is called ‘heeling in’).
- Protect the base of newly-planted trees and hedges with a simple guard of rolled chicken wire. Netting will stop rabbits from nibbling the bark, which can kill young plants. Even if you don’t have rabbits, a tree guard protects against strimmers, boots, footballs and pets.
- If you have any trees supported by stakes, check the ties are neither too tight nor too loose. Too tight and they could cut into the bark, too loose and they could be ineffective. Snug is what you are looking for. If you detect that bark is being rubbed away, you may need a softer tie.
- Carry on taking hardwood cuttings of trees and shrubs. All you need is sections of stem the thickness of a pencil cut into 20-30cm lengths. Strip away any leaves and plant them so that two-thirds of the stem is below ground. Make sure you plant them the same way up that they were growing; otherwise they won’t root. Growing from hardwood cuttings is a long game, and you won’t have a well-rooted plant for about a year; however, if you’re patient, it’s a cheap and easy way of filling your garden or growing gifts for gardening friends.
- With bonfire night coming up, it’s the perfect time to gather any dead and diseased wood or leaves to be burned. Make your bonfire and light it on the same day - don’t burn heaps where animals might have taken refuge.
- New lawns can still be created by laying turf on prepared ground. It’s too late to sow seeds as growth will be slow, and birds will feed greedily on the generously supplied grass seed.
- Keeping established lawns free of fallen leaves is critical for their health. Wet grass with no light and airflow can succumb to a fungus called fusarium, which causes circular orange patches to appear. Rake leaves regularly, piling them in mesh bags or bins to rot down and create leaf mould.
- If you have spring-flowering bulbs planted in grass, make your final cut short so that the bulbs are higher than the turf in spring. That way, you’ll get a clearer view of the flowers. Do not remove the foliage of autumn-flowering bulbs such as cyclamen in the process, as that will reduce flowering next year.
Kitchen Garden & Allotment
It’s game over for summer crops, and most of your harvest will have been gathered by now. There’s something cathartic about clearing beds and releasing space for new sowings. It’s like a new beginning, but not quite. Judging by the allotments where we grow, some allotmenteers prefer to pack up and hibernate until spring. However, with a little planning and minimal effort, you can enjoy a smattering of crops through the winter and be ready to come sprinting out of the starting blocks in spring.
- Plant bare-rooted fruit bushes and trees, taking care not to bury them too deep. You won’t see any signs of life until spring, but then they should get off to a strong start. You have until late February to get this job done, but you’ll find that some nurseries will run out of popular varieties early in the planting season.
- Plant rhubarb crowns in rich, moist soil, keeping the growing point level with the soil surface. I’d recommend leaving the plant to establish for a year before helping yourself to the stems. If you can’t wait that long, take only a few once you’re certain the rhubarb is thriving.
- Sow a crop of early broad beans in well-drained soil. In colder areas, protect the emerging seedlings with a cloche or sow in pots and keep the young plants in an unheated greenhouse or cold frame. ‘Meteor’ or ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ are good varieties to seek out.
- Plant garlic cloves in well-drained soil and full sun. Space them 15cm apart with their tips 5cm below the surface. You can also plant some varieties of shallot and onion now. Take care as they develop roots, as they can sometimes propel themselves out of the ground!
- Stake Brussels sprouts, kale and purple sprouting that are prone to rocking in the wind. These brassicas prefer to grow in quite compacted soil, so don’t be afraid to put your boot in at the base to firm them. Cover plants with a taught net to protect the leaves from hungry pigeons.
- If any beds are empty, spread a thick layer of manure over them now. The worms will get to work immediately, distributing organic matter evenly through the soil.
- Cured pumpkins and squashes can be stored in a dry, frost-free place until you are ready to use them. Our record is a ‘Crown Prince’ pumpkin that lasted from one Halloween to the next without losing any eating quality. How amazing is that?
- Cut perennial herbs like mint and marjoram back to ground level. I resist pruning our substantial rosemary bush for a little while as I like to pick armfuls for decorating at Christmas. Until last century, rosemary was as much part of Christmas traditions as mistletoe, holly and ivy - it smells better than any of them!
- Cut out the fruited stems of blackberries, loganberries and autumn raspberries. I like to give them mulch at the same time. Train the new shoots of brambles into a high arch shape to maximise the fruiting length of the stems. Tie them firmly to a supporting structure.
- Start pruning fruit trees as soon as their leaves have fallen. Think first, because you have a little while to complete this task. Sometimes it’s better to consider which branches you wish to remove before picking up your pruning tools. I recommend reading up on the specific fruit type and tree shape because you can’t undo an ill-advised cut.
Wildlife & Sustainable Garden
November marks the start of the bird feeding season. You’ll notice species that have been absent over the summer returning to your garden in search of food and shelter. Hedgerows and gardens should be brimming with seeds and berries, but they can quickly disappear when a flock of hungry birds descends. Once nature’s larder is empty, it’s time to dust down your bird table and hang up your feeders to keep your feathered friends well-nourished.
- Use a fishing net to clear fallen leaves from ponds. A few won’t do any harm, but if there are too many, they will decompose, creating a nutrient-rich sludge that will encourage algae and rapid weed growth.
- It’s time to clean bird boxes, feeders and birdbaths thoroughly in readiness for winter. A bucket of hot, soapy water and a stiff brush are all you need, although I find an old toothbrush handy for getting into all the nooks and crannies.
- Convert empty nesting boxes into winter roosting sites by clearing old nests and cleaning them thoroughly. If you feel generous, provide a cosy bed of sheep’s wool or the seed heads of old man’s beard.
- Mount new nesting boxes, positioning them on a tree, wall, fence or building that’s at least 1.5m – 2m above ground and beyond the reach of cats and other predators. Attach roosting pockets to hedges to create temporary winter shelters. In the UK, the ideal aspect for a birdhouse is East, North, North-East or South-East, facing away from the prevailing weather and strong sunlight.
- Don’t be in too much haste to tidy up. Leave seedheads on plants to provide food for birds and small mammals through autumn and winter. Fallen leaves give shelter to insects but collect them from lawns and prevent diseased foliage from rotting near cultivated plants. Hollow stems, empty seed pods and stacked logs create the perfect refuge for ladybirds. Don’t trim ivy and evergreen hedges, as they’re perfect for roosting birds.
- The rate at which material decomposes will reduce, but you’ll add lots of material to your compost heap or bin this month. Take care to layer wet and dry so it doesn’t become a smelly, soggy mass. In areas with high rainfall, cover open compost heaps with tarpaulin to keep the contents on the dry side, removing them occasionally to let air circulate.
- I've mentioned bonfires before, but I’ll mention them again! Don’t construct them days or weeks before burning as animals will take up residence and could perish in the flames. Pictured below is a prime example of a bonfire than could be an animal hotel? Or, is it an animal hotel that could be a bonfire? If you can’t tell, neither can a hedgehog.