October can be glorious or ghastly, depending on how the weather gods are feeling. This year we begin the month as if summer never ended, but frost is now a distinct possibility in the country's north and at higher elevations, while down south, we should avoid subzero temperatures until at least November.
The best way to approach October is to expect little and count every fine day as a blessing. A carefully planned, well-tended garden will still have plenty to give before the trees lose their leaves next month. Prompted by the shortening days, asters, rudbeckias, echinaceas, sedums, dahlias, salvias, cannas, colchicums, nerines and gingers will be flowering their socks off, sustaining insects and pollinators until it’s time to die or hibernate. In their scarcity and tenacity, autumn flowers have a particular beauty and poignancy.
October mirrors April as being a busy month. As well as readying the garden for winter, there’s much to be done in preparation for spring. While the ground is warm and moist, bulbs can be planted, perennials divided, and shrubs moved, giving them time to settle in before it gets cold. Pace yourself, but don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today, as it’ll be Christmas before you know it!
There is still time in the early morning and evening to enjoy quiet moments of contemplation and reflection. October is an excellent time to make plans and mentally note the volume of plants before they start shrinking back. I can barely move in my garden now, which is how I like it, but any more plants could be problematic. Soon I will begin tidying and cutting back to reduce potential wind damage while preserving as much cover as I can for birds and insects. Even in my tiny urban oasis, an astonishing amount of wildlife remains active.
October at a Glance
Plan what plants to move in spring and write yourself a Christmas list. I’ve already received my first dahlia catalogue, so planning for next year has begun!
Sow sweet peas, broad beans, peas, salad leaves, parsley and coriander.
Take cuttings of forsythia, dogwood, willow, rosemary, lemon verbena and thyme. Root offcuts of overgrown houseplants like tradescantia and coleus in a glass of water.
Plant spring-flowering bulbs, container-grown shrubs and perennials, garlic, bulbing onions, spring cabbages. Divide overcrowded clumps and replant the vigorous outer sections. Move flowering biennials into their final positions.
Prune over-exuberant growth and finish trimming hedges. Remove the old stems of autumn-fruiting raspberries, blackberries and loganberries at the base. Prune roses and late flowering shrubs to prevent wind rock.
Harvest apples, pears, aubergines, beetroot, carrots, celeriac, French beans, runner beans, Florence fennel, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, parsley, parsnips, maincrop potatoes, peppers, radishes, spinach, squashes, sweetcorn, tomatoes, turnips, plus seed from flowers and vegetables that you’d like more of.
Pick - sunflowers, dahlias, zinnias, cosmos, helichrysums and chrysanthemums. It’s a good idea to pick flowers you intend to dry before the weather turns damp and misty.
Make - jams, chutneys, preserves and pickles. Bag up seeds to give as gifts at Christmas. Prepare and dry flowers for making everlasting bouquets and pot pourri.
Buy - pruning tools, shears, bulb planters, pot feet, warm gardening gloves, new wellies, a protective gardening apron, autumn and winter bedding plants and spring-flowering bulbs. Order bare-rooted plants for delivery from November onwards.
Enjoy - every last moment before the clocks change, cosy afternoons in the shed potting bulbs, colourful displays of squashes and gourds, lighting a bonfire (carefully and responsibly) and hearty soups made from homegrown produce.
Visit - October 21st is National Apple Day and all around the country there are apple-related events, including apple pressing, apple tasting and even apple archery!
Further Advice From Dan Cooper Garden
- How And When To Plant Spring-Flowering Bulbs
- Planting A Container For Autumn Colour
- In The Know - Hedge Trimming
- How To Prune Like A Pro
- Divine Dahlias - Get To Know And Grow Them
With summer firmly behind us, now’s the time to stop feeding, gradually reduce watering and ensure plants get all the light they need.
- Bring in house plants and citrus trees that have spent the summer outside. Check them for pests, including slugs and snails hiding beneath pots, before reuniting them with their indoor plant pals. As a precaution, give plants a quick spritz with a natural formulation bug control spray.
- Give each plant an end-of-season pamper. Remove dead flowers, dying leaves and any unwanted growth. This will improve the plant’s appearance and allow air to circulate freely. Remove detritus from the surface of the compost to prevent diseases from spreading.
- I am often asked about the tiny black flies that occasionally infest houseplants. These harmless creatures are fungus gnats, and they’re feeding on organic matter in the compost. Fungus gnats are drawn to damp compost, which could signify that you’re watering too much. If they irritate you, spread a layer of horticultural grit or finely crushed shells over the surface of the compost, and they’ll pester you no more.
- Reappraise where your plants are positioned to ensure each one gets the optimal amount of light. Shorter days and lower light levels make a significant difference, meaning that plants that enjoyed spending time away from windows in summer need full exposure again.
- Beware killer drafts! Plants detest rapid temperature fluctuations, so avoid positions near radiators, in fireplaces, next to external doors or by drafty windows. Browning foliage is a sure sign that a plant is unhappy, so move it immediately to a more benign spot.
- Watering frequency can be reduced gradually over the coming weeks. Touch the compost surface, and if it feels moist, do not water. I have already noticed that my houseplants can be left for twice or even three times as many days compared to the height of summer. However, don’t just stop watering suddenly. Watering frequency can be reduced gradually over the coming weeks. Touch the compost surface, and if it feels moist, do not water. Even cacti and succulents may need a drink occasionally.
- Stop feeding altogether, even those plants that flower at Christmas. Overfeeding will encourage rapid, sappy growth that’s vulnerable to pests.
- Bring dormant cyclamen corms and amaryllis bulbs back into growth by potting them in fresh compost, placing them in a light position and watering them sparingly.
- Pot up hyacinths and daffodils for Christmas flowering. Look out for bulbs that have been ‘prepared’ - a period of chilling to fool them into thinking that winter has come and gone. Keep the bulbs in the dark until the emerging shoots are 2-3cm long, and then bring them into a bright position. If they’re developing too quickly, move them into cooler (but not darker) conditions to slow them down.
Potting Shed & Greenhouse
- If you cleaned your greenhouse in September, it would be ready to receive plants as you move them in from the garden. It’s not too late to spruce it up; just choose a warm, dry day so you can work comfortably and ensure that any plants you need to move outside temporarily don’t catch a cold.
- Replace broken panes of glass and wipe away any dirt or white shading to maximise light levels.
- Given the escalating cost of fuel, consider whether or not you need to heat your greenhouse this winter. Perhaps giving a spare room over to tender plants might be cheaper than heating a greenhouse? If heating is a must, think about how to insulate the space and keep it warm without breaking the bank.
- Dramatic fluctuations between day and night temperatures are typical of October. Keep doors and windows open on warm days but close them up at night to maintain an even temperature.
- Once tomatoes stop ripening naturally on their vines, pick any that have reached full size and pop them in a box, drawer or paper bag with a banana. The banana will produce ethylene which promotes ripening. Alternatively, make green tomato chutney.
- Sow salads, pak choi, parsley and coriander for fresh crops of leaves over winter. They won’t need heat, but they will appreciate shelter from the elements.
- Sow sweet peas in deep pots for early flowers next summer. Wait until the weather is consistently cool as you want the seedlings to focus on producing strong roots rather than lots of top growth. By sowing in rubberized coir pots, you will be able to plant out your sweet peas in April without disturbing the roots.
- On wet weekends, make time to clean and sharpen your tools so that they’re ready for action. If you’re not going to use them for a while, coat the blades with camellia oil which will protect them against rust.
- Gather up hoses and irrigation systems, making sure they’re completely drained of water. Storing them indoors over winter will help them last considerably longer.
- If you have guttering on your shed, make sure it’s clear of moss and dead leaves. Consider installing a water butt if you don’t already have one. If we have another summer like 2022 you’ll be glad of the alternative to tap water.
Terrace & Balcony
Terraces and balconies tend to be close to our windows, so they must look good all year round. Don’t tolerate tired-looking plants in full view - either move them out of the way or replace them with something that will lift your spirits.
- If you planted containers with summer bedding, they’re probably past their best by now. Before pots become an eyesore, compost any annuals and rescue perennial plants such as fuchsias, geraniums and begonias if you wish to keep them. They can be overwintered in a greenhouse, conservatory or on a sunny windowsill.
- Discard old potting compost as it will be devoid of nutrients and may harbour pests such as vine weevils: spread it on your veggie patch or empty borders where the birds will have fun picking it over. Then clean pots with a stiff brush before reusing them. If you time it right, you can plant them with bulbs and spring bedding straight away.
- Empty pots that aren't frost-proof. Let them dry out before storing them in a shed or garage over winter.
- If you use pot saucers to help retain moisture, remove these now and lift pots onto pot feet to facilitate good drainage. Wet and cold is a combination most plants won’t tolerate.
- Spring-flowering bulbs are perfect for pots. Choose shorter, stouter varieties that are less likely to blow over or flop when they bloom. My preference is to plant one variety per pot so that when it has finished flowering, I can move the pot out of sight and let the foliage die down. However, layering bulbs in pots, sometimes called the ‘lasagne method’, can produce magical results and a succession of flowers for 2-3 months. The drawback is that the elongating leaves of early flowering bulbs can make the display untidy later on. When planting, make sure each variety will grow taller than the one that flowers before it.
- No one wants to traipse up and down the garden in pitch black, so plant a container of herbs that you can stand outside the back door for picking when the mood takes you. Sage, thyme, rosemary and parsley will stay green and healthy all winter. Punctuate the herbs with a few violas, and you’ll have a supply of bright flowers to garnish salads and decorate cakes.
- The wind is the enemy if you garden on a balcony. Protect plants that stick their heads above the parapet or reduce their height to stop them from getting bashed about. Grouping plants closely together will create warmth, humidity and shelter.
As the month progresses, there’s a noticeable thinning of flowers and foliage, creating space for bulb planting. Weeds and self-seeded plants will exploit the very same gaps, so be prepared to spend a lot of time on your hands and knees this month! There may still be plenty of blooms to enjoy, particularly asters and chrysanthemums. Cut them when the weather is fine and before they get spoiled by the weather.
- It’s time to secure the future of tender perennials such as bananas, begonias, angel’s trumpets (Brugmansia), cannas, coleus, fuchsias, gingers and pelargoniums. If you plan to keep them, lift the plants, trim back the roots and tidy the upper portions. Pot them in fresh compost and overwinter in a frost-free environment. If you want them to keep growing, they’ll need excellent light. If that can’t be provided, bananas, brugmansias, cannas, fuchsias and gingers will cope perfectly well in an unlit garage, basement or loft until they start growing again in April.
- Conditions are ideal for dividing clumps of perennials, saving the most vigorous sections for replanting. A Japanese Hori Hori will make light work of the job. Container-grown plants will settle in fast if planted now.
- Wallflowers, forget-me-nots, pansies and violas can be moved into flowering positions. Many of us do this in tandem with bulb planting to create a multi-layered display in spring.
- Look out for self-sown seedlings. Protect and nurture those you want to keep and pull out the surplus. Nature can be incredibly generous, so don’t be afraid to thin seedlings out so that there is 20-30cm between each one. Spares can be given away or potted up and sold at the garden gate.
- Continue picking flowers as often as possible. You won’t encourage many more flowers to develop now, but you can enjoy them indoors. You can be a little more relaxed about deadheading now, leaving seedheads to form for seed collection or their wildlife value.
- Chrysanthemums must be supported with twigs or canes to take their full flowering weight. The stems can be quite brittle, so it’s not always possible to resurrect them once they’ve been flattened.
- After an early 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 or straw - this needs to be dry but not bone dry. Keep the crates in a frost-free, dark place and check them every so often to ensure they’re still healthy. In milder parts of the UK dahlias can be left 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
- It’s the perfect time to plant evergreen shrubs and conifer hedges while the soil is still warm. Start small unless instant results are a necessity - ultimately, smaller plants will outgrow established ones, and they’re cheaper to replace if they fail. You can also move evergreen trees and shrubs now if required.
- Deciduous hedges can be created using bare-rooted plants purchased between November and March. Order them now from a reputable supplier.
- Take cuttings of dogwood (Cornus), willow and forsythia. They are easy-peasy to do - it’s as simple as cutting a pencil-thick shoot beneath a leaf and popping it in the ground - but will take several months to root. It will be a year or so before you can transplant hardwood cuttings so forget about them, and you should have vigorous new plants in twelve months’ time.
- Wind can badly damage roses if they’re allowed to rock back and forth. The action is similar to repeatedly bending a piece of soft metal, causing weakness at the point where the plant is flexing - generally the junction between the roots and branches. Cutting away dead, diseased or damaged stems to a healthy bud is a good start. Then reduce the length of side shoots by about two-thirds to an outward-facing bud. If you can still see the base of the plant moving at ground level, you might want to add a stake for good measure. The same advice applies to other flowering shrubs such as lavatera and buddleja.
- There’s a fine line between creating a wildlife-friendly garden and preserving the health of your plants - not all debris is good! Collect fallen leaves from under rose bushes so they don't carry diseases over to the next year. Burn any diseased leaves, don’t compost them.
- It’s been amazing to see how rapidly lawns have recovered after one of the driest years on record. Be patient and give bare patches time to green up. If they don’t, they can be resown in spring.
- Keeping 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 and pile them in mesh bags or bins to rot down and create leaf mould.
- Start raising the height of the blades on your lawnmower and use a fork or aerator to spike your lawn, improving drainage. Apply an autumn lawn feed, but only when you’re satisfied that the grass has fully recovered from summer’s drought.
- If you’re planning to plant spring-flowering bulbs in grass or where they’re already naturalised, cut the grass short so that the bulbs are higher than the sward in spring. That way, you’ll get a clearer view of the flowers.
Kitchen Garden & Allotment
Given how early crops ripened this year, the chances are that your main harvest is over. However, there’s still plenty to do in preparation for winter and spring.
- Tall brassicas such as Brussels sprouts, kale and purple sprouting are prone to rocking in the wind. Remove yellowing leaves, firm plants in with your heel, stake and cover with a taught net to protect the good leaves from hungry birds.
- Cut down the wispy foliage of asparagus once it starts to turn yellow. Weed carefully between the crowns to make sure perennial weeds can’t get a foothold.
- If you’re left with empty beds, sow green manure like winter rye. While growing, it will prevent weeds from taking over; when dug in, green manure will contribute vital nutrients to the earth.
- Potatoes are greedy plants. Once you’ve lifted every tuber from the soil, add a generous quantity of manure to restore fertility. In lighter soils, you can dig the manure in; in heavier soils, it can be spread on the surface, allowing worms to do all the hard work.
- Pumpkins and squashes need time to cure, during which time they develop tough skins. This improves their keeping qualities. Lift ripe fruit onto bricks or straw to keep them dry and exposed to the sun. In damp and dreary weather, cure the fruits on a sunny windowsill or greenhouse staging.
- Sow a hardy broad bean variety such as ‘Meteor’ or ‘Aquadulce Claudia’. The young plants will overwinter and produce a crop from May onwards. Cover them with fleece or cloches if it gets very cold in the meantime.
- Cut back herbs that have flowered, including sage, lemon balm, marjoram and mint. The stems can be taken almost to ground level. Large clumps can be lifted, divided and replanted or shared with friends. Make sure that mint is replanted in a confined space as it will spread and dominate its neighbours. Cuttings can be made of rosemary, lemon verbena and thyme.
- Plant garlic cloves in well-drained soil in full sun. Space them 15cm apart with their tips 5cm below the surface. You can also plant some varieties of shallot and onion now.
- If your figs have not ripened, they are unlikely to do so now. Any that are on the cusp of ripeness can be encouraged by placing them in a bag with a banana or simply left on a sunny windowsill to develop their full flavour. Any that are hard and green are a lost cause. Tiny, pea-sized figs are next year’s fruits and should not be tampered with.
- Wrap grease bands around the trunks of fruit trees to trap the wingless females of the winter moth - when the caterpillars emerge next spring, they can do a lot of damage to the tree’s leaves and reduce cropping. You can buy grease bands from garden centres.
- Cut out the fruited stems of blackberries, loganberries and autumn raspberries. I like to give them mulch at the same time. Train the long new shoots of brambles into a high arch shape to maximise the fruiting length of the stems. Tie them firmly to a supporting structure.
- Apples are ready for picking when they sit in the palm of your hand and come away with a slight twist. If you have to pull hard, they’re not quite ready yet. Store apples in a cool, dry, well-ventilated spot until you’re ready to use them.
Wildlife & Sustainable Garden
October is a month of change in the garden, with many insects and animals going to hibernation whilst others build up their strength for winter. As gardeners, we are responsible for ensuring the wildlife in our gardens has the best chance of survival. That means providing as much food, water and shelter as possible from now until spring.
- Butterflies feed voraciously before overwintering. Buddleja, hebes, sedums, Michaelmas daisies and ivy are among their favourite flowers to visit in October. Look out for bumble bees sheltering inside dahlia flowers.
- Ducks, geese, redwings and fieldfares will soon start to arrive for winter. This summer’s drought is likely to result in a scarcity of seeds, nuts and berries, so we should be prepared to supplement birds’ natural food sources until spring.
- Clean bird boxes, feeders and birdbaths thoroughly in readiness for winter. You can convert an empty nest box into a winter roost by clearing and cleaning it in autumn, then adding a cosy material like sheep’s wool.
- If you’re thinking of having a bonfire, be sure that no animals are hiding within the material you’re hoping to be rid of. Tempt wildlife elsewhere by building stacks of logs in which they can hibernate undisturbed. Build bonfires from scratch rather than setting fire to an established pile.
- Hedgerows will be dripping with berries, haws and hips, providing food for birds, small mammals, moths and insects. Avoid trimming or tidying until the leaves have fallen and all the fruits have gone.
- Don't be hasty and harvest every pear, plum or apple you can reach. Leave a few fruits on each tree for birds and butterflies to enjoy. If you don't have fruit trees in your garden, hang apples from a branch or pergola instead. Be aware that wasps also like to feed on ripening fruit. They get drunk on the sweet juice, making them aggressive, which is one of the reasons that you’re more likely to be stung by wasps in the autumn.
- Leave seedheads on plants such as teasel, lavender, sunflowers and Verbena bonariensis. These will provide food for birds and small mammals through autumn and winter.
- Material for composting mounts up rapidly during autumn. While it’s still warm, keep layering wet and dry materials and turning them to speed up the composting process. Ensure you have ample compost bins and net sacks for collecting leaves and making leafmould. If you have space in your greenhouse, consider moving a compost bin inside to generate a small amount of background heat as the contents decompose.