Time to take stock of our plant collections

Lots of colour remains in the garden as we enter October, and this fellow has resolved to enjoy it as much as the pollinating insects clearly are.

Bee pollinating a Sedum. Picture by Tom Pattinson.
Bee pollinating a Sedum. Picture by Tom Pattinson.

But there’s no thought of time-out for rest. Certain steps taken over the coming weeks will help set up future displays. It’s time to take stock of our plant collections and see what action is required now by way of propagation. Then before the weather goes into winter mode, consider whether some need protection through the months ahead.

It begins with the taking of stem cuttings whilst fresh growth remains, and it’s clear that several herbs, shrubs, and perennials in this garden are rich in suitable material. It would be wasteful to ignore it all.

We use French tarragon frequently throughout summer and having occasionally lost the plant to frost in the past, took to rooting softwood cuttings which spend winter in pots under cover. This insurance against loss is also applied to the irresistibly fragrant lemon verbena (Alloysia) and any other plants that are not reliably frost hardy.

Aster Violet Queen.

If you lack the facilities to propagate plants from cuttings, a simple and effective solution is to stand them in a jar of water. With our propagating box currently enjoying a rest period, we’ve rooted fuchsias, geraniums, hebe and tarragon in this way and transferred the young plants to first pots which then need modest warmth and light to keep them going.

October is the ideal time to take hardwood cuttings of deciduous shrubs and soft fruit bushes. Simply remove a stem of the current year’s growth between 25 to 30 centimetres long and push it upright into a slit trench in the open garden until only one third is showing above soil level. Make it firm with your feet and leave the rooting to nature.

As autumn continues, we’ll be lifting large clumps of herbaceous perennials and dividing them into sections, each of which represents a new plant for a different part of the garden – or a friend. Meanwhile, there are some perennials that find winter exposure to the elements too difficult, so we are faced with options. Do we dig them up and move into a greenhouse or frame? Or leave them in situ and offer some form of protection?

Globe artichokes for instance, are susceptible to frost damage, so I cover them with a layer of straw and rake a mound of soil over to stabilise it.


Planting time is upon us. Between now and next spring, in the absence of frost, it’s possible to introduce new plants to your garden or dig up and reposition some existing specimens.

Act now to encourage early root development while warmth remains in the soil. Or, wait until the point of spring when soils are warming up and plant growth taking off. I make the most of both opportunities but let deciduous woody perennials, ornamental fruit trees, shrubs and bushes shed their leaves and enter dormancy first.

Change over from summer bedding displays to winter/spring types now for colourful containers or patches of bedding to greet each morning. Autumn heathers (Calluna vulgaris), dwarf cyclamen and Lonicera nitida ‘Bagessen’s Gold’ will see us through to December. Winter heathers (Erica carnea) can then replace the fading cyclamen and calluna plants which will live to flower again. Plantings of wallflower, polyanthus, myosotis, pansy, viola and dwarf bulbs, are among other options.

Don’t miss the opportunity to plant bulbs now and if possible, handle them yourself before buying to ensure they’re sound. Also remember that many of them contain alkaloids, poisonous when ingested. So wear gloves or wash your hands afterwards. Planting depth is important. Generally, this should ensure the tip of a bulb is covered with soil to twice its height. Slightly more is okay on well drained sandy soil, slightly less on heavy clay.

If you want bowls of them for Christmas, plant up ‘prepared’ hyacinths and ordinary narcissi ‘Paper White’ now and keep them in a cold, dark environment for several weeks to encourage root development. In early December, wean them into the light and moderate warmth to enjoy the display and fragrance.