By Ruth Hayes
As autumn merges into winter, cracking on with your November gardening jobs is just as important as ever. Even if it’s looking increasingly drab and uninviting out there, you shouldn't be deterred from getting outside and spending time in the garden.
It is a myth that this time of year is the gardener’s ‘quiet time’. It is just as busy as the summer in its own way, with plenty of gardening tasks to keep you warmed up and busy.
Whether it's pruning, general cleaning and tidying or even planting bare root trees, there's lots of winter garden jobs to keep you occupied in the garden this month.
And don’t neglect your houseplants either. Just like their cousins in the garden, their requirements are changing with the seasons and they need a different regime of care to see them through the winter months.
Keep busy with our November gardening jobs
Our November gardening jobs will help keep your garden tidy and healthy and also give you the chance to propagate some of your favorite plants.
1. Sharpen your tools – it's time to prune
Once the leaves have fallen and the plants become dormant, it is time to get out your best loppers and best secateurs and prune most deciduous trees and shrubs, including apple and pear trees and roses. We wait until now because the sap will have retreated down the trunks, reducing the risk of excessive bleeding from pruning wounds.
Pruning trees and shrubs may seem daunting but it is pretty straightforward if you remember a few key tips. Keep the motto ‘look twice and cut once’ in mind, because over-enthusiastic pruning is hard to rectify and can ruin the shape of the plant.
Also remember the 'three Ds' and start by removing dead, diseased and damaged growth. Then cut away branches that are rubbing against others causing damage to the bark, and any that are growing inwards, congesting the centre of the tree.
The aim is to create a goblet shape, with an attractive open centre that allows for good ventilation and keeps the tree healthy.
Top tip: Trees to leave alone in autumn and winter include evergreens that can be damaged by cold, plums, cherries, apricots and almonds that can fall foul of silver leaf disease (prune these in midsummer) and early-flowering shrubs such as philadelphus and forsythia, as you will remove the blossom-bearing stems. You'll find advice on when and how to prune forsythia correctly in our guide.
2. Plant bare root trees and shrubs
As long as the soil isn’t frozen or waterlogged, this is the season for planting bare root trees. These types of plants are one or two-year-old ‘whips’ that look like long twigs but will soon grow and become robust, quickly-maturing trees.
They are sold, as their name suggests, with bare roots, ie. not in containers, and need planting as soon as possible otherwise their roots dry out.
It is en economical way of buying stock, especially if you need to purchase in bulk for planting a hedge or orchard, and the varieties on offer are generally wider than buying container plants.
Bare root plants can include native trees such as hazel, beech and ash, rose bushes, fruit trees and bushes and even biennials including wallflowers. If it's rose bushes you're interested in growing, you can find out how to plant bare root roses in our dedicated guide.
Most should all be widely available online between now and late February (though early purchase is advised before stocks run low) and you may also be able to buy them from your local market, plant nurseries or garden centers. Many online suppliers sell them in bundles with root-boosting mycorrhizal fungi and planting instructions.
Top tip: If you can’t plant immediately because of soil conditions or because you haven’t prepared the ground, ‘heel in’ (temporarily plant) the whips somewhere sheltered. They can stay in this temporary planting site right through winter, though do aim to get them in their final spot before they come into leaf next spring.
3. Start saving water with a butt
We are in the wettest time of the year, so it makes sense to optimize the sky’s damp bounty by harvesting it for the garden.
Water butts are an essential part of gardening life. Harvested rainwater is better for plants and your garden pond than chemical-laden tap water.
If you site your butts on downpipes close to where you are growing things (think of using your shed, garage and greenhouse as well as the house), you won’t have so far to lug heavy watering cans come the dry season.
Water butts come in different sizes to fit most spaces and meet most requirements and are widely available from hardware and DIY stores and online suppliers.
Top tip: Water butts often work better with a stand, so the tap is raised and your watering can can fit underneath. A lid or cover is also a good idea to prevent debris contaminating the water and insects from laying eggs in it.
4. Keep your hard surfaces safe and clean
Falling leaves, regular rainfall, windblown debris – they all collect on the garden’s hard surfaces and create problems, so one of your most important November gardening jobs is to clear them up.
One of the most obvious issues if you don't is a treacherously slippery surface and in the run-up to Christmas, the last thing you need is a skiddy slip that lands you on your back with bruises or worse.
Accumulated muck is also a haven for pests and disease, and garden hygiene is crucial at this time of year when still, mild fall weather is already a potential breeding ground for fungal problems.
It can also build up around drains and in drainage channels, increasing the risk of flooding.
If you haven't already got a gadget for cleaning hard surfaces (you'll find plenty in our guide to the best pressure washer) your next best bet is with a bit of elbow grease as well as a stiff brush and a bucket of hot water laced with the best patio cleaner.
A sharp hoe blade or narrow wire brush are also handy tools for getting rid of moss, algae and other plant material starting to grow between paving stone.
Top tip: Avoid using pressure washers if you have block paving patios as you risk dislodging the cement between the brickwork.
5. Lift or insulate tender tubers
Once the first frosts have blackened their leaves you can decide what to do with your dahlias as part of your November gardening jobs.
If your garden is sheltered and your soil light and free-draining, then you may want to risk leaving the tubers in the ground. All you need to do is cut back the stems to within 4in (10cm) of the ground and then mulch the root area with a generous layer of well-rotted compost, bark chippings, straw, manure or a combination of all four.
However, if you have heavy clay soils that are prone to waterlogging, or if you don’t want to take the risk of leaving the dahlias in your light soil, you should reduce the stems as before and carefully dig up your tubers. Then hang them upside down in a shed or garage for a couple of weeks until they have completely dried out before storing them over winter somewhere frost-free in trays of sand or compost.
Check them sporadically to make sure they haven’t gone soft and dispose of any that have started to rot. Make sure you leave the stems attached, even if they have dried out, as new shoots won’t grow if they are removed. Next spring, pot up the tubers in compost, water them and keep them in a light, warm spot indoors and they will start to produce new shoots.
If you are learning how to grow dahlias in containers, you still cut them back but you can leave them in the pot and move them into a frost-free greenhouse, garage or shed to sit out the cold weather.
Top tip: Begonia tubers are overwintered in a similar way. Cut back the dead top growth and store the flat, round tubers in trays of sand until they can be potted up next spring.
6. Look after garden wildlife
As the natural world gets carved up and built on, our gardens are increasingly important to birds, insects and wildlife.
One of the key November gardening jobs is to do your bit for wild birds and animals, even if all you can do is put out fresh food and water for them every day and make sure your bird feeders and other feeding stations are kept clean, with leftover food removed.
If you have the space for more wildlife garden ideas, leave a quiet area of your plot to grow slightly wild with a pile of logs and maybe some straw, to provide a hideaway for animals and insects as they slow down or look for somewhere to shelter from the elements.
Hedgehogs will be feeding up before periods of hibernation, so leave out fresh water and either proprietary hog food, which is widely available from pet shops and garden centers and online, or meaty pet food and kitten biscuits.
If you have a hog house, stuff it with straw and dry moss and place it somewhere quiet and sheltered and you may be lucky enough to attract a hedgehog for its winter sleep.
In mild winters, hedgehogs often awaken a few times to move nesting sites or search for food. However, they usually do this at night and hogs seem out during the day are likely to be unwell. In the UK, if you find one, carefully place it in a box with a warm blanket and some food and water and call the British Hedgehog Preservation Society on 01584 890801. Someone there will advise you and put you in touch with a local rescue centre or vet.
Top tip: Instead of cutting back all your perennial stems, leave some standing to provide seeds for hungry birds and hollow stems for hibernating invertebrates.
7. Divide perennials
If the soil is workable, you can still divide perennials as one of your November gardening jobs to create identical plants to the parent. This will also help to rejuvenate the original if it has become too large and stopped flowering well.
Dig around the plant you wish to split and lift it, taking care not to damage the roots. Keep as much soil around the rootball as possible and divide the plant by either slicing it into pieces with your best garden spade or knife or by using two garden forks placed back-to-back and then pulled apart.
Each division should have healthy roots and top growth and you should also take this opportunity to dispose of any old parts of the plant that have become woody and unproductive.
Plant the divisions at the same depth as they were growing before, firm the soil around them, water well and mulch with well-rotted compost or manure.
Planted now they will have time to get established before the onset of ‘real’ winter and will be ready to grow again and flower next year.
Top tip: Don’t worry if the new divisions wilt for a day or so after replanting. This is normal and they will soon revive.
8. Try taking root cuttings
There are cuttings for every season and late fall and early winter is when root cuttings come into their own.
Herbaceous perennials including Oriental poppies, Japanese anemones, phlox and verbascum can be propagated in this manner and you can create large numbers of new plants from each parent.
Root cuttings are one of the easiest ways of propagation and have the added benefit of creating new plants without pests or diseases. Here's how to do it:
- Lift the parent plant from the ground, keeping as much soil around the rootball as you can.
- Choose healthy pencil-thick roots and remove thin ends and fibrous lateral roots.
- Cut each length into 2-4in (5-10cm) lengths with a horizontal cut at the top end and an angled cut at the lower end, which creates a larger surface for root development.
- Insert into pots of gritty compost so the flat end is sitting just below the surface and place them in a cold frame or greenhouse for winter.
- Pot up individually in spring or summer when there should be signs of growth emerging from the compost.
Top tip: Remove no more than a third of each plant’s root system otherwise you run the risk of damaging future growth or even killing it.
9. Pot up your summer cuttings
If you've already learned how to take cuttings from plants and took softwood or semi-ripe cuttings of perennials or shrubs this summer and they have taken and started to grow, pot them up individually now as part of your November gardening jobs and overwinter them in a frost-free greenhouse or on a light windowsill.
Here's the best way to do it:
- Stand the pot of cuttings in water to saturate the rootball and make it easier to remove from the pot.
- Carefully slide all the cuttings out in one go, keeping as much of the compost intact around the young plants as possible. Separate the plants by working your thumbs in between the plants and gently levering them apart.
- Check their roots are robust and healthy, with no pests in the compost and then place each cutting in a pot large enough to hold all the roots and infill with compost.
- Pinch out any over-long shoots to keep the plants compact through winter and promote bushier growth with more flowers next spring. Then water your new plants and keep them in a light, frost-free place through winter.
I took some pelargonium cuttings and they have developed strong root systems and grown well and will see out the winter in their own pots. They are now growing in containers of John Innes No 1 which is formulated to suit young plants and will ensure they don’t put on too much growth this winter, which can exhaust their energy supplies.
The new plants will need no food and only minimal watering to stop them wilting through winter, and I will restart a regular design regime when they grow again next spring, before they are hardened off and planted out.
Top tip: Tender leaves of young plants are vulnerable to attack by sap-sucking pests such as aphids so check them regularly and remove any unwanted visitors immediately. There are lots of tips on how to get rid of aphids in our guide, too.
10. Don't ignore your houseplants
It isn’t just your garden plants that need different care in winter, the best indoor plants also react differently to the change in light levels and temperature.
Most of them stop growing so there’s no need to feed them until next spring. You can also reduce watering, only moistening the compost when it feels dry to the touch.
The exceptions to this rule are plants that are in flower, such as African violets, orchids and streptocarpus, which should be fed and watered fortnightly and deadheaded where necessary. If you want to learn how to grow orchids or how to grow streptocarpus, we've got lots of expert advice in our guides.
As the days get shorter and darker, caring for indoor plants in winter means moving them to where they get the most light, but make sure they are out of draughts and away from direct sources of heat such as open fires and radiators.
Mist plants with room-temperature water to counteract the effects of central heating, which can dry the atmosphere, and stand plants on trays of damp gravel to boost humidity around the leaves.
Wipe leaves occasionally with a soft damp cloth to remove dust and pests, and check for pests too, as they like to overwinter in the warmth of our homes.
Top tip: Never leaves houseplants on windowsills overnight if curtains are drawn because the material can trap cold air that will potentially damage the plants.
Ruth is the gardening editor of Amateur Gardening magazine and spends her working days carrying out, writing about and photographing the tasks the readers should be carrying out each week, as well as testing many of the new products that arrive on the gardening market.
She is horticulturally trained, with a qualification from the Royal Horticultural Society, and her work varies with the seasons and includes everything from sowing and planting, to pruning, taking cuttings, dealing with pests and diseases and keeping houseplants healthy. She covers ornamental plants and edible crops and everything she writes about and photographs is in her own garden, a mature plot that has been a work in progress since her family moved to their current house in 2012.
Her main interests are gardening for wildlife and organic gardening, as she firmly believes you don’t need to ‘nuke’ pests and problems with toxic chemicals, nor use peat composts to produce the garden of your dreams.
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