With winter now well on its way, it’s time to focus on preparing the garden for the changing conditions ahead. We wrap up our tender plants and bring others indoors for shelter. Our colourful winter bedding takes centre-stage and we find new ways to enjoy our gardens, whether that be through the magic of fluttering winter birds, or the enchanting flicker of flames on bonfire night.
With everything that’s going on, November is by no-means a quiet month for the gardener and proceeding down this wintery track, here are my top 3 jobs for this spectacular month.
1. Prepare outdoor plants for winter
The onset of winter can wreak havoc on the unprepared garden, with waterlogging, early frosts and biting winds being common sources of misery for the unsuspecting gardener. Luckily, there are a few simple things you can do that will minimise the effect that winter can have on your garden and will see you well prepared for almost anything that the season has to throw at you.
Container plants are particularly vulnerable during winter. Often, they become waterlogged and this can lead to the compost freezing and the plant rotting or dying. The container itself is also at risk of cracking, if it is not frost resistant.
Raise the containers off the ground, as this has the benefit of aiding drainage and means the container is not sitting in water. You can do this effectively using bricks or pot feet which are available from most garden centres. Also remember to remove saucers as these can also cause waterlogging and should not be used in periods of heavy rainfall.
Insulate the pot by covering it with bubble-wrap—this will stop the compost from freezing and reduce the likelihood of the pot cracking. To prevent plants in beds and borders from succumbing to frozen earth, apply an organic mulch around the base, as this will retain heat and prevent root damage through freezing.
Now that the base is protected, it’s time to secure the top half of your plant. Frost and strong winds have the potential to devastate the non-hardy plants in the garden, often leaving behind traces of their work in the form of scorching, brown patches, stem-collapse, leaf-spotting and blackening.
Prevent these from happening by wrapping your plant in a frost fleece. These can be gently wrapped around the plant, ensuring all the tender parts are covered and carefully secured with garden twine or string. You can also use old bed sheets or tablecloths if frost fleece is not available.
Cover plants before dusk and remove the fleece in the morning, unless the weather is particularly formidable, in which case it can be left on until it subsides. Some hardier plants can withstand the occasional frost, but can suffer if they are allowed to thaw out too quickly.
This often occurs with the rising of the morning sun and vulnerable plants should be moved to a more suitable location, preferably one that is reasonably sheltered. It is also a good idea to move tender plants to sunnier locations, or indoors, where they will be able to withstand the temperatures better.
2. Plant winter bedding
Winter bedding is truly one of the miracles of the gardening world. While the rest of the summer plants are dying off, these colourful delights are just getting ready to explode onto the scene. They have a truly amazing impact on anything from the smallest window boxes to the largest palace gardens and November is the perfect time to start planting them.
A few examples include the wonderfully colourful cultivars of Violas (pansies and violas), and the many unique varieties of Primula (primroses and polyanthus). There are also Erysimum (wallflowers) and Dianthus barbatus (sweet williams) among many other winter bedding plants that look spectacular in the winter garden.
They can be planted into beds, hanging baskets, containers, borders and window boxes for mesmerising winter colour.
The plants are usually available at garden centres in the bedding plants section and typically come in trays of 4-6 plants—meaning there’s no need to choose between quality and quantity!
Here are a few planting tips you can follow to get you started with bedding plants:
Firstly, before visiting the garden centre, you may want to consider planning your display. This will make it a whole lot easier when trying to decide what to get in-shop. Once you have your plants, rake the planting area to remove any stones or debris. Make sure the soil is moist by adding water to any dry patches.
Gently remove the seedlings from the tray by pushing them up from the base and gently handling them by the root-ball. Then lay your plants out into the pattern or design you have decided on, starting from the middle and working your way outwards.
Once you are happy with the layout, you can begin planting. It is a good idea to work from a timber board, to avoid compacting the soil. To plant, make a small hole, then place the root-ball just below the surface and firm-in afterwards. Finally, give your new bedding display a good watering, as this will ensure they are established well.
3. Provide food for winter birds
The classic winter garden would not be complete without the appearance of winter birds, which flutter in to feed and breed from November onwards. They are also joined by their cousins from the continent, which migrate to populate our gardens from Scandinavia, Russia and Europe.
The most well-known of these, which is also the national bird of the UK is the robin. Other winter birds that are common sight in gardens are finches, bluetits and nuthatches. These are joined by migrating populations of redwings, waxwings and bramblings which come to the UK for winter.
Providing food for these amazing Aves will not only help them survive the winter, but is also a great opportunity to see them up-close and can bring a great sense of satisfaction—a feeling that encouraging wildlife into you’re the garden often creates.
There are a number of ways you can provide food for winter birds and this includes putting out bird feeders with seeds, suet balls or blocks and a source of water. A simple bird feeder with a seed mix will draw in plenty of flying wildlife, like sparrows, nuthatches and finches which greatly enjoy sunflower seeds. Niger seeds are a particular favourite of goldfinches.
Do you have much over-ripe fruit sitting in your fruit bowl at home? Scatter over-ripe apples, raisins and other fruits on the ground to attract thrushes and blackbirds. You can also plant berry and other fruiting trees to provide food and shelter.
It is important to remember that birds need fat as well as grains and fruit to survive throughout the winter. The most common method of providing this food group is with suet balls and suet cakes. These are balls or blocks of suet, pork fat or coconut oil, sometimes containing seeds, insects or mealworms.
They can be bought from shops, but are just as easy to make at home. Simply take a half coconut shell or a hollow piece of wood and fill with melted suet. Then add your choice of seeds, insects or dried mealworms and leave in a cool space or fridge to set.
Once it has been set, you can leave it outside and watch as the birds flock to it. You can also put out grated cheese or bacon rind, thinly cut for smaller birds like wrens to feast upon.
When hanging suet balls outside, try to avoid plastic netting and opt for metal or plastic cages instead. This will prevent birds or any other curious animals from getting caught in the netting.
It is just as important to provide a source of water and this can be in either a birdbath or a shallow dish. Make sure the sides are sloping to allow easy access and top up the water regularly.
If you follow these tips, you should see plenty of winter wildlife flocking in, adding that perfect touch of grace to the garden in November.
Protect fruit trees
November is the unfortunate time of year when wingless female winter-moths climb trees to mate and lay eggs. The caterpillars of these moths can go on to eat the leaves and this can have a devastating effect on fruit trees. The solution is to fit grease bands or glue barriers around the trunk and stakes of fruit trees. These should be placed around 45cm above the soil level and replenished throughout the season if necessary. Moth activity will drop off in April when they can be removed and separate methods will need to be used to protect against codling and plum moths.
Collect bonfire materials
Not only is bonfire night a fun national celebration, with fireworks, sparklers and toffee apples—it is also a useful method of clearing garden waste in November. Prepare for your own bonfire by collecting materials, such as old or rotten wood, plant-based garden waste such as woody cuttings, leaves and anything else that is unsuitable for composting. Store your materials in a dry corner of the garden, or shed where there will be less moisture and cover with a tarpaulin if necessary. Once the bonfire is over, add the ashes to your compost.
Check for hibernators before lighting a bonfire
Hibernators such as hedgehogs, dormice, frogs and toads often see unlit bonfires as an ideal location to crawl into and hibernate. And who could blame them? A huge palace of wood, leaves and garden waste must look very appealing to a hedgehog in search of a home for the winter. In order to prevent the heart-breaking death of these creatures, never build a bonfire days or weeks in advance—instead, collect the materials and compile them on the day of lighting. Be sure to thoroughly check a bonfire before lighting and only light from one side, allowing any creatures you missed to escape.