Gardening: Don’t panic – put an action plan in place

We have reached a stage in our gardening year where the weather can no longer be trusted to play ball.

By Tom Pattinson
Thursday, 14th November 2019, 4:00 pm
Enjoy the autumn colour of Hebe as it shows a second bloom as late in the year as November.
Enjoy the autumn colour of Hebe as it shows a second bloom as late in the year as November.

Phrases such as ‘a possibility of frost’ and ‘snow on high ground’ have already featured in the local weather forecast, but I’m still out there with the lady of the house, daily, some sessions shorter than others, working on several fronts.Such situations call for a survival strategy, and we have one that’s well-practised. It’s based on Corporal Jones’s advice rather than his actions. Panic gets us nowhere fast. Priority is given to the ongoing salvage operation that involves digging up tender perennials and pruning them to a manageable size so they can be packed into deep trays of compost and moved under cover. Ours stand on staging in the unheated greenhouse.Any tender perennials planted back in springtime, or those judged too large to lift and at risk from frost damage, will benefit from protection offered in situ. In this respect it seems anything goes. I’ve seen everything from Heath Robinson structures ready to collapse, to shrubs wrapped in fleece that resembled a mummy. Surrounding the whole plant with straw and binding it in place with hessian sack is a popular and environmental-friendly approach. If dahlia tubers are to remain in the ground, place some straw over the surface and weigh it down with a covering of loose soil.A downward turn in the weather encouraged us to rescue the late chrysanthemums last week. They’ve grown outside in pots all year and are now bristling with flower buds. Some early flowering types that have not yet bloomed have just joined them in the cold greenhouse. They were dug from the garden with substantial root balls attached and transferred straight into large pots. The pungent fragrance of their foliage as we enter the area evokes memories of seasons past, and I love it as the buds start breaking into bloom.Introducing new plants, roses, fruit trees and bushes, heathers, et al is high on the must-do list, and we made a start with the first arrival via post last week, Rosa ‘Gabriel Oak’. Top marks to the supplier David Austin’s on several fronts; for delivery within ten days of ordering and sound packaging. The use of materials that can be recycled, plus a booklet with full planting instructions and year-round aftercare advice.Shrub pruning continues. We reduced the butterfly bush and sweetheart rose from three metres to one, respectively, minimising wind resistance and possible root disturbance. We’ll revisit them in March and be more severe. Meanwhile, there`s an enjoyment in the leaf colour and late flowering of forsythia, weigela and hebe.

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When ornamental trees and shrubs, fruit, vegetables and herbaceous perennials are present in a garden, there is always going to be a surplus of green material to dispose of, but there is a positive solution – recycling. The good old-fashioned, open compost heap might not appeal to everyone, but it can transform spent plant materials into rich brown organic matter over time. Likewise, the range of composting bins which are ideal where space is limited.Beneficial organisms essential to the decomposition process operate best in a warm, air-rich environment. This can be achieved through the choice of site and maintaining a balance of brown (twigs, cardboard, et al) and green (lawn mowings, plant growth) waste when filling the, facility. Ideally, large compost heaps are laboriously turned-over mid-season to encourage oxygen throughout. This is achieved in bins by alternating layers of brown and green. Avoid depositing too many small branches at once as this can bring the decomposition to a halt. Conversely, tipping a large heap of grass cuttings into your compost bin will produce a gooey, not so fragrant mess.An open composting facility will inevitably attract vermin, and for this reason we changed to the enclosed ‘Hot Bin’ system invented by Morpeth-based Tony Callaghan a few years ago. It has other benefits. Whereas traditional composting methods reach a processing peak in summer, slowing down considerably in winter, a built-in thermometer shows that this facility maintains considerable warmth. Furthermore, it accepts waste, cooked food, from the kitchen.We harvest the processed substance via a door at the Hot Bin base as and when required. It accompanies new plantings, is mixed in with special potting composts, goes into a vegetable trench or serves as a mulch around fruit bushes. When the spade slices through, it emerges like a piece of Black Forest gateau and has a pleasant, earthy smell. But this gardener’s not for tasting it. The proof of this pudding lies in the produce it supports, that eventually finds its way to the kitchen.