By Ruth Hayes
As the new month begins, it's time to think about October gardening jobs. Autumn may be marching on, but there is still plenty to be keeping us occupied in the garden.
The days may be shorter and the temperature has dropped but the garden is still full of planting interest too. The leaves are beginning to turn shades of yellow, orange and pink before falling to the ground. After the summer weather, cooler nights and increased rainfall spur the autumn-flowering bulbs into life such as cyclamen and colchicum. Late blooming perennials like salvia and asters will keep pollinators happy throughout the month, while there are also plenty of vegetables to plant in October to give you bountiful harvests through the winter months too.
As the days grow shorter, darker and damper, here are our essential October gardening jobs to keep you warm while you are working away outside making sure your garden is looking at its best.
1. Protect your fruit trees
There is a well-worn, ancient joke that goes ‘What’s even worse than biting into an apple and discovering a maggot?’ The answer, of course, is ‘discovering half a maggot’, and early autumn is the time to be taking steps to ensure that fate doesn’t befall you next summer.
Several moths, including the winter, burnt umber and march moth, lay their eggs in fruit trees between November and May. The wingless females crawl up the trunks to lay their eggs on the branches, and the caterpillars emerge in spring as tender buds are opening.
These voracious grubs attack apple, plum, pear and cherry trees, chewing leaves, blossom and fruits and severely damaging and weakening trees, affecting cropping.
The easiest way to stop this and protect your blossom and fruits is to secure sticky grease bands around the trunks in October and November to intercept the females as they crawl their way up.
They are easy to attach though to be truly successful you need to keep them clear of debris between now and April.
The bands are widely available from garden centers and online and can be cut to size. Then tie the band top and bottom with the supplied twine. This anchors the band securely and stops moths crawling up underneath.
Barrier glues and pastes work best on trees with rough bark, as moths can crawl under unevenly attached bands. Never use an adhesive that is strong enough to trap mice, birds or bats.
Top tip: Make sure the bands and glue go all the way around the trunk otherwise moths will find a way round and easily access the upper branches.
2. Planting forced bulbs
For indoor color and scent to brighten the winter gloom, now is the time to learn how to force bulbs indoors.
Not all bulbs are suitable for this early ‘forcing’. The ones to buy should be labeled ‘prepared bulbs’, which means they have been briefly stored below freezing in the summer so they think they have already experienced winter and come into flower earlier.
Several varieties, including hyacinths, amaryllis (or Hippeastrum) and Narcissus ‘Paper White’ are all suitable and if started now should be in flower for Christmas, several weeks before garden bulbs have started to bloom.
The best medium for successful growing is bulb fibre, which is loamy compost with added egg shells or charcoal that keeps it ‘sweet’ and helps prevent the bulbs rotting. Follow these tips for successful planting:
- Place a layer of bulb fibre or compost in the bottom of your container and wet it with clean tap water.
- Set the bulbs, pointy end up, on the fibre making sure they are close but not touching.
- Add more bulb fibre or compost until the bulbs are buried to their neck, with just the tips poking out.
- Either seal the bulbs in a black bin liner or place in a drawer somewhere dark and cool. Check occasionally and water lightly if dry.
- Check the bulbs regularly to make sure they haven’t dried out and then bring them inside once shoots appear. Keep them somewhere light and cool to green up before moving them somewhere warmer and equally light.
You can also buy special hyacinth vases with wide ledges at the top. Fill the vase with water and sit the bulb on the ledge so it just touches the liquid. Keep the vase topped up and roots will soon start to grow, followed by leaves and a flower! It's a really simple way to give your indoor garden ideas a boost of color in the winter months.
Top tip: Always wear gloves when handling bulbs as they can irritate your skin.
3. Lift tender perennials
As temperatures drop further it is time to move some of your tender perennials into the relative security of a greenhouse or cool porch.
Different plants have different requirements but pelargoniums and gazanias that are fairly small can be potted up, cut back and overwintered undercover.
It is a simple procedure, so start by digging around your plant and lift it with soil still attached to the roots. Place your plant in a container large enough to take all the roots, and fill with peat-free multipurpose compost.
Deadhead and, in the case of pelargoniums, reduce all the fleshy stems to around 3-4in (7-10cm) then water and place somewhere light and frost free.
To protect plants from frost, keep fleece handy to drape over tender plants on nights when the temperature falls well below 32˚F (0˚C).
Top tip: If any flower buds form during unseasonal mild spells in winter, pinch them out to prevent the plant wasting energy on flowers rather than strong new growth in spring.
4. Making leaf mould
Every season has its associated chores and one of the key October gardening jobs is raking up fallen leaves to make one of the most important commodities in soil improvement: leaf mould.
Learning how to make leaf mould by collecting fallen leaves also improves your garden. It removes them from hard surfaces where they become dangerous and slippery as they degrade, and from the lawn where, if left, they can cause yellowing of grass and harbor pests and other problems.
Deciduous leaves have different properties and decompose at differing rates. The quickest and best are beech, oak and hornbeam.
Thicker leaves such as sycamore, walnut and those in the chestnut family take longer to break down, though you can speed up the process by shredding them or going over them with a lawn mower before collection.
These denser leaves can also be added to the compost heap after shredding.
There are two main ways of storing leaves. You can construct a permanent bin using four tree stakes wrapped around with wire mesh. Alternatively, get black plastic bin liners, make holes in them and stuff them full of leaves.
Sprinkle some water in it before knotting the tops and stowing them somewhere out of the way. It will take at least two years for your leaves to rot down, but the end results will be nutritious, crumbly dark leaf mould.
If it is taking longer, turn the leaves occasionally and dampen them during long, dry spells.
Top tip: Save fallen pine needles and use them as a mulch around plants that like acidic soil, such as azaleas, blueberries and rhododendrons.
5. Cut back hardy perennials
Perennial plants that are hardy enough to withstand winter in the garden should be cut back now as part of your October gardening jobs to keep them tidy and reduce the amount of plant material potentially at risk from frost.
Remove dead stems and flowerheads as well as leaves that have been left torn and battered after summer. You may choose to leave some stems intact however, and we recommend you do for a couple of reasons.
Architectural seedheads such as agapanthus, fennel and teasel are attractive in their own right and look marvelous in garden borders when they are touched by frost on sub-zero winter mornings.
Moreover, their seeds provide vital nourishment for birds at the hungriest time of the year, while their hollow stems can offer shelter for hibernating insects and invertebrates. There's plenty more ideas for how to attract birds into your garden in our guide too.
It's worth noting that not all perennials should be cut right down, however. Penstemons are not as hardy as many varieties so simply reduce this year’s growth by a third, removing spent flowerheads and a short length of stem.
The remaining stems will help protect the crown from the worst of winter’s chill. You can help your plant even more by layering a generous amount of well-rotted compost or manure over the root area.
Top tip: Save and dry some of the more attractive seedheads and spray them gold to use as Christmas decorations.
6. Look after your roses
If you've been following our advice on how to grow roses, don't stop the good work now the main flowering season is over. Roses need some care now, though with any luck they will keep flowering for a few more weeks yet, especially those in sheltered spots.
Start by deadheading flowers and remove and bin or burn any leaves that have succumbed to black spot, a fungal disease that is extremely common on roses.
It can be identified by the yellow and black spots that proliferate on leaves and, in very bad cases, stems. Severe infections will lead to leaf-drop and weakened plants.
It is too late in the season to treat the problem with a fungicide, but you can help ensure it doesn’t linger by scooping up and, again, disposing of any fallen leaves with black spot, and mulching around your plant.
This will smother any black spot spores that are lurking in the soil and help prevent them being splashed back onto the rose when it rains.
Top tip: Leave some dead flowers to form rose hips. They will add color to your winter garden ideas and the birds will feed on them too.
7. Look after your agapanthus
If you've already learned how to grow agapanthus, chances are you already know they originate in South Africa and will therefore need a bit of care to see them through cold winters.
The evergreen varieties are slightly less hardy than deciduous plants, but should survive if given enough insulation and protection.
Whether they keep or lose their leaves, plants growing in the soil should be generously mulched with well-rotted manure, compost or straw.
The leaves of evergreens can be folded over and tied in a bunch to protect the crown, while deciduous agapanthus leaves should be left on the plant to die back.
If you've been growing evergreen agapanthus in pots as part of your container gardening ideas, they should be moved into a frost-free greenhouse or porch and mulched with compost.
You can do the same with deciduous varieties or, if your garden is reliably sheltered, move the pots against a sheltering wall, wrap with fleece and bubble wrap and tip them onto their side. This will ensure that the compost doesn’t get waterlogged during winter, as this would force oxygen out of the compost, drowning the roots.
Waterlogging can also risk cracking the pot should the saturated compost freeze and expand.
Top tip: Consider clustering several containers of plants together somewhere sheltered through winter so they are easier to insulate en masse
8. Protect banana plants
Potted bananas are another tender exotic that needs extra care through winter, so one of your October gardening jobs should be to prepare these plants for colder weather.
The hardiest variety, Musa basjoo, will survive as long as the top growth is cut back to around 3ft (1m) before the plant is mulched and its pot swaddled in fleece and bubblewrap. Move the pot somewhere sheltered and make sure its wrapping stays in place through winter.
Tender varieties such as Ensete are more likely to survive the cold seasons if moved undercover to somewhere well-lit and frost free. Remove their leaves as before and check they do not become infested by pests or hit by disease through winter.
Top tip: If your insulated potted banana stays somewhere sheltered outside for winter, raise it up on feet so excess rainwater can drain away.
9. Sow next year's sweet peas
A summer garden always seems to be sadly lacking if it doesn't contain a stand of colorful and scented sweet peas, and if you learn how to grow sweet peas as part of your October gardening jobs, you will have healthy plants ready to go into the ground as soon as the soil is warm enough in late spring.
Sweet peas, like all members of the legume family, have long root-runs so need deep pots to achieve optimum growth.
Rootrainers are ideal; they are deep modules that are hinged at the bottom so they can be opened out at planting time and each module of soil inserted into the ground without disturbing the young plant’s rootball.
An equally effective growing method is to sow seeds in the cardboard insets of toilet and kitchen paper. It's a good option for sustainable gardens because they are biodegradable so they can be planted straight in the ground next spring where they will rot away as the roots spread.
Pop one or two seeds around 1in (2.5cm) deep in each module, cover with compost, dampen and place in an unheated greenhouse, mini greenhouse or cold frame.
When the seedlings start to grow, keep pinching out the top growth to encourage bushy development that will lead to more flowers. Make sure they are well ventilated otherwise the tender new growth will succumb to botrytis grey mould.
Top tip: Save some sweet pea seeds to sow next spring as well. They will flower later than autumn-sown plants and give you prolonged blooming.
10. Pruning season is here
Late fall and winter are the peak pruning season for most deciduous trees and shrubs, so it is time to start sharpening and cleaning your best secateurs and best loppers and looking at your plants to see what needs doing.
By making pruning one of your October gardening jobs, it will help keep plants in good shape and encourage improved flowering and fruiting the following year. It also gives gardeners the opportunity to remove dead and damaged material and give trees a close inspection to make sure they are in good health.
One word of caution though. It will be extremely tempting to use all those woody prunings to make a bonfire, especially in the UK with November 5 coming around. If you have piled wood up ready to light, please move it again on the day of lighting, as an unsuspecting hedgehog may have already taken up hibernation residence inside.
If this is the case, carefully place the hog in a box, put it somewhere quiet and give it some water and meaty pet food. In the UK, you can contact the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and they will advise you what to do and put you in touch with a local hedgehog rescue centre.
Top tip: Do not prune plum or cherry trees in winter as the timing will make them more susceptible to silver leaf disease. Evergreens should also be pruned in summer as the cold can damage cut shoots.
11. Build a bug hotel
October is a great time to learn how to make a bug hotel as it will provide shelter for creepy crawlies during the cold months and they can be put together quickly and easily.
Simply stack shelves using wood offcuts and old bricks. Fill sections with bamboo tubes, pine cones, straw and leaves. In fact most natural material foraged from your garden will work well. Painting it in a bright color will make it a fun feature, too.
12. Treat your tools
You might not be seeing much of your tools in the coming months but give them a good cleaning before they bed down for the season. Scrape mud off garden spades, forks and hoes.
If the mud is caked on then dunk them in warm, soapy water and wipe them down with an old towel or cloth. Rub oil (any type will do) onto the metal blades before putting them away and storing them in a dry shelter for the rest of winter.
Don't forget, we've got plenty of garden tool storage ideas in our dedicated guide to inspire you to keep those tools rust free and looking as good as new, too.
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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