What can I do in the autumn garden to get ahead?

On a fine autumn day, there’s nothing better than spending time in the garden, filling your lungs with some fresh air and getting on with a few things. The more you do now in preparing your garden, ready for next year, the easier the often-madcap spring rush will be.

So, what can you be getting on with? Here are my top five things to do over the coming weeks. And, if it’s too miserable to be in the garden, there are two you can do indoors!

Mulch, mulch, mulch

Mulching is one of those great gardening terms. It simply means placing a deep layer of organic matter over the soil. Why? Because mulching helps prevent several possible problems – and makes your life easier. Two of the most tedious gardening jobs are weeding and regular watering during prolonged dry spells. You can reduce or even prevent both by mulching the soil; mulches help prevent weed seeds germinating and reduce water loss from the soil. But that’s not all. A good, thick mulch will also insulate plant roots from damaging cold temperatures and frosts in autumn and winter, and insulate shallow-rooted plants (like hydrangeas and rhododendrons) from damaging, hot, burning sunlight in summer. And, if you garden on clay soils – which always dry out and crack in dry summers, damaging plant roots – a fine mulching material will fall into and fill up any cracks as they start to form. Your mulching material can be anything from home-made garden compost, leafmould, composted bark, bark chippings or similar materials. But it needs to be applied thickly. 7.5cm (3in) is a good depth; 10cm (4in) is often recommended, but I think it’s a bit over the top (apart from when trying to protect dahlia tubers and similar over winter); 5cm (2in) works well; but anything less than this will have no effect at all. And always add your mulch to moist soil – otherwise it will dry it out further.

Composting and leafmould-ing

In the computing world, there is a much-quoted term – GIGO; garbage in, garbage out. There is also my gardening GIGO; garbage in, goodness out. Making your own compost from otherwise waste plant materials and making leafmould from all those fallen leaves will create materials that are a godsend for the garden. Well made, they’re invaluable materials that are perfect soil improvers, planting compost and mulches They’re also a great way of recycling – so, it’s good for you, the garden, the environment – and your bank balance!

Compost bins don’t need to be ugly, this one looks like a traditional beehive from Bespoke Garden Products

While tree leaves could be added to your compost heap or bin, because they break down more slowly (unless you collect them with your lawnmower set at one of the highest settings or use a garden vac, both of which will shred them into smaller pieces that break down more quickly), they are best treated differently to compost to make leafmould.

Clear the garden leaves with a garden vac like the Handy EV3000 Garden Vacuum
Image: Handy

You can check out a previous article I wrote about what to do with all the autumn leaves and how to make leafmould and view Richard’s video on the subject (below).  

Cleaning, sharpening, oiling

If you’ve got a set of gardening tools that you’re proud of, it makes sense to look after them. So treat them all to a good autumn clean and spruce up. Give your cultivating tool heads a good scrub, removing caked on soil, and wipe them down with a rag dipped in a little general oil to protect them against rust. Check wooden handles are sound and not damaged or rotting, check them for loose pieces of wood that could give you splinters (sand any rough areas with fine sandpaper) and wipe them with a little linseed oil applied with a soft cloth. Give the blades of secateurs, loppers and other pruning tools a good clean to remove all that built-up gunk and oil them. These and hoes are all “cutting” tools – yes, even hoes, as they’re for cutting through the stems of weeds – and need sharp blades. Otherwise they’ll do a shoddy job and make it more difficult and more tedious for you. So, if you don’t have a suitable small blade sharpener – get your hands on one now! Sterilising the blades with household bleach or Jeyes Fluid is also a good idea if you’ve been pruning plants with disease; that’s because some diseases can be transferred from plant to plant on the blade.

Going potty

With the current worries about plastics building up in the environment, we all need to look at our use in the garden. Plastic pots are one case in mind. I save all mine to use again later on; I now have a shed full of pots! Smaller pots and trays used for seed sowing and growing on are easy to re-use, but you should clean them after use before re-using. I spend a couple of hours in autumn, washing them in a solution of household bleach, rinsing, drying and storing ready for spring. But if you don’t want to buy any new plastic pots, there are alternatives. Egg cartons are useful for small seeds. Toilet rolls and the inners of kitchen roll are especially useful for sowing peas, beans and other plants that like a deep root run. And you can make your own pots from newspaper using the two sizes of Paper Potter from Nether Wallop Trading. Jean Vernon has more ideas and tips here.

Make plant duvets!

During cold weather, some of our garden plants – those that originally arose from more “exotic” climes – are at risk of damage or death. So they may need some protection during the colder weather.

Protect tender plants with a fleece jacket like this one from Haxnicks

You can cover the top growth with horticultural fleece – choose the heavier grade winter fleece; it has a weight rating of around 30gsm (grams per square metre). But most damage is actually caused when the roots freeze. In beds and borders, guess what? Yes, you can help protect the roots with a thick mulch! But plants growing in pots (even those regarded as being cold hardy) are more susceptible, as they’re above ground and don’t have the insulation benefit of the surrounding soil. You can protect them by wrapping the pots in plant “duvets”. You can find out how to make your duvets in my How to protect your container plants in winter video (below).

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