October in the garden can be a beautiful month. So far it’s been a little on the damp side for a full-on abundance of loveliness, but nonetheless leaves are on the turn, late-season perennials such as asters, Japanese anemones, rudbeckias and echinaceas are in full flow (at their best backlit by low shafts of autumn sun), and there’s still plenty of greenery to knit everything together.
If you’re lucky, you might have candy-pink nerines flowering in a sunny border, or delicate white or blush cyclamen popping up in a shady corner (I have some that come up in a tricky spot where I’ve left the ivy to spread and where little else will grow). Maybe you even have a few late tomatoes, squash or pumpkins ripening in the veg patch. Or, like me, runner beans that, delighted to see an end to the summer drought, are flowering and giving a second harvest.
Japanese anemones doing their thing in October
Whatever your garden’s up to right now, there are a few jobs that are worth doing while the days are light and warm, and the earth is yet to become that familiar winter mud bath.
- Plant bulbs
I admit I haven’t planted a single spring bulb yet this autumn. But I will. It’s not too late. In fact, for tulips it’s better to wait until November to reduce the risk of soil-borne diseases such as tulip fire blight. One of my favourite combinations is Queen of Night tulips with a mid to pale pink tulip such as Pink Impression – combine the two in bold drifts, fill a generous border with them and the effect will blow you away.
Pink and deep maroon tulips are a winning combination
Another showstopping combo is tulips and wallflowers. Go bright and jewel toned for unbeatable glamour: Fire King wallflowers with brilliant seams of marmalade-striped Princess Irene tulips, for example.
I’m also going to put in more drumstick alliums. They flower in July - much later than spring alliums - and they’re an altogether subtler beast, the smaller, egg-shaped flowers in deep purple to green and cream, topping flexible wiry stems.
I’m a sucker too for pale-coloured daffodils, so I’ll be stocking up on pretty little Minnow daffs to plant in pots and window boxes; they’ll mix beautifully with a pale-blue froth of forget-me-nots, I reckon.
Lovely Minnow daffodils
- Deal with self-seeders
I wrote about the joy of self-seeding plants earlier in the year and now’s the time to sort the ones you want from those you don’t. Plants like Verbena bonariensis, foxgloves, Alchemilla mollis, forget-me-nots and some of the hardy geraniums such as Geranium phaeum will self-seed like mad, especially in gravel and pots. I leave a lot of them right where they are to grow and flower next spring and summer, but there are always others that are coming up in the wrong place. If they’re not in the right place, dig them up and either repot them to give away, or replant them straight away where you do want them.
- Cut back summer-flowering perennials
There’s a lot to be said for leaving the ornamental seedheads of some plants – they provide a bit of winter structure as well as food for the birds. Many just aren’t worth keeping, however, as they quickly become bedraggled, rotten and windswept. Among these are hollyhocks, which are best cut down to about 15cm in mid to late autumn (if they’re rusted, get rid of the plants altogether). Euphorbias also merit similar treatment while wearing gloves - their milky sap can be pretty irritating to the skin and eyes. Lupins and thalictrums should be cut down to the ground. Verbena bonariensis I leave until the end of the month, then cut back to 15cm. I’ll cover the crown with some chipped bark, too, to help them through a cold winter.
- Split overgrown plants
If you’ve noticed some of your perennials running out of steam this summer, it might be because the clumps have grown too big. If this happens, they can die off in the middle and flowering will peter off. There’s an easy solution, though, which is to dig up the plant, divide it (either with a garden fork or a sharp knife), and replant in sections, throwing away the spent central chunk. This somewhat brutal treatment will reinvigorate the plant and encourage it to flower again with gusto – plus, of course, you’ll end up with more plants than you started off with. You can do this with all kinds of plants including ornamental grasses, verbascums, day lilies, crocosmias, eryngiums and salvias.
- Plant for autumn berries
I don’t have enough berry plants in my garden. There are a couple of pyracanthas, which I love, but the birds gobble up all the orange berries by November and then I’m left with nothing. I’m thinking of a Rosa rugosa, for its fabulous autumn hips (I’m desperate to try making my own rosehip jelly). If my garden were surrounded by fields and wide open skies, I’d go for a sorbus, as against an early autumn sky of pure blue those lovely berries are at their most splendid.
Sorbus berries pop against a bright sky
Here’s hoping the weather improves and we can get out and enjoy a bit of late-season sun and gardening.
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer