Make the most of the autumn lull by re-arranging your garden in preparation for the year ahead. Take stock and make brave decisions about plants you’re unsure of, because you’ll need to live with your choices, says Jane Moore
November is a month to really savour as a gardener. It’s when I tend to make those great big, sweeping changes to my garden. Not only am I still fired with enthusiasm from the summer joys and successes but I’m also fiercely aware of the areas that are dull, tired and have never quite worked in the first place. Irritatingly aware, as quite often I’ve been looking at particular plants or patches of border that are wrong, wrong, wrong. And now, at long last, is the time to sort it all out.
Take a step back and evaluate things, but do be ruthless. I know from bitter, regretful experience that whatever you hesitate over and leave to its own devices, you will be living with next year. There are countless times my soft-hearted approach has allowed growing space for some awful specimen that I hope will sort itself out or flourish or finally look as good as it did in someone else’s garden. By next summer I’ll be kicking myself around the garden for having allowed it room. Yet again.
So be honest with yourself and get stuck in moving those plants that you may have put in the wrong place or just simply decided you would prefer somewhere else. We all make planting mistakes. I do find that plants don’t always behave the same in my garden as they do elsewhere. That lovely dense little perennial I loved at a National Trust garden can end up a sprawling mess in my slightly shadier plot.
If you haven’t got much time or inclination or you’ve yet to experiment with moving plants around, then start with perennials. These have shallower, less anchoring root systems than shrubs and are so much easier to lift and re-plant and so are great for building up techniques and confidence. A lot of gardening books advise doing this in the spring but I’m always so short of time that I never get around to it. As a consequence I have a positive infestation of Aster amellus ‘King George’ which I’ve been meaning to divide for several years. Of course the books are right, spring is better, but autumn isn’t a disaster as long as the weather is mild enough. I may suffer some losses but there’s enough ‘King George’ to go around, believe me.
To divide a perennial, start by digging around the clump with a fork. Then put your fork into the clump and prise off a chunk to plant elsewhere. That’s it. Make sure it’s a reasonably large chunk, about 10–15cm in diameter if possible. And do pick your day carefully. It shouldn’t be too cold or frosty, nor should it be windy – one of those lovely soft, slightly drizzly autumn days is just perfect. Remember this is about the plant’s comfort, not yours.
ESTABLISHED SHRUBS AND TREES
I’m just about to set to and dig up an established Cotinus, or smoke bush, that I’ve decided is way too big for my little town garden. I love it and have enjoyed the autumn colour but now the leaves have dropped so I’ll cut it back hard, dig it up and move it to the garden at The Bath Priory where it can have as much room to sprawl about as it wants.
It’s easier than you might think to dig up and move an established plant. Okay you do need to have some brute force about you as it’s a question of simply chopping a decent sized root ball out with a spade, without worrying too much about chopping through some of the roots. Remind yourself frequently how much plants want to survive, cut the top back to a meagre framework, shove it into a bag and replant it in its new home where it can recover from this abuse quietly for the rest of the winter.
Handily, November is also the best month for buying shrubs, trees and roses and for planting them in the still warm soil. It is still warm underneath, even if it is a little frosted on the top layer, and that’s where it matters to the plants and their delicate, needy little root systems. Planting at this time allows the roots to settle in over the dormant winter period and that’s especially important for bare root plants. These only become available in November as they have to be dormant and leafless before they can be lifted, as the professionals say or dug up as you and I might term the process. Why bother with bare root you may wonder? Well, they’re an absolute must-have for gardeners like me as I can get a wider variety of much larger plants for less money – it’s win, win, win. While I love the convenience and tidiness of a containerised plant when it comes to big things like trees you just can’t beat bare root if you’re on a budget.
Jane Moore is an award-winning gardening columnist and head gardener at The Bath Priory Hotel. Twitter: @janethegardener