Friday, 31 August 2012

Winter is coming- time to get planting!

For many gardeners autumn is time to wind things down in the garden. As the borders finish their displays and the fruits are all gathered from the trees and bushes the only thing left to do is catch some seeds as they fall and generally clean and tidy everywhere in time for the long dark winter. 
C/W from top left: Oxydrendrum arboreum, Cornus kousa 'Satomi', Acer rubrum 'Armstrong'
The garden itself is making quite a display; the display from summer's perennial plants is replaced by the pinks and purples of those stalwarts of then autumn border, the asters, or the long spires of colour provided by Persicarias, all to the backdrop of fiery reds, oranges and yellows in the autumn display of the deciduous trees. Ornamental grasses are going to seed, sometimes exchanging their more subtle flower heads for bold and long lasting seed heads; with good luck and no damaging autumn winds these will be decorative well into winter. There's a lot still happening in the garden, but certainly the feelings of most gardeners is that everything is drawing to a close.
Strobilanthes wallichii- a little-known but wonderful autumn flowering perennial
It didn't used to be this way- our horticultural ancestors had everything worked out just right. We rush around trying to plan, propagate and plant the garden in spring, where previous generations concentrated on sowing seeds for the year ahead and helping the plants as they emerge after the long dark winter. OK, if you raze your borders to the ground as was traditional practice you do lose the skeletons of the previous season picked out in dew and frost, but if you are not careful (or are unlucky with late winter/early spring weather) you will end up tidying the border at the point when there is too much else to do. Time is precious, so why try to do everything in spring?

Probably until the last 15-20 years it was practice to plan your garden in summer, get new borders and places for trees and shrubs prepared in late summer when the weather is fine for doing heavy work, and then plant in autumn. Spreading the gardener's workload through the year made sense then and it still makes sense now, especially with busy modern lifestyles.

There are advantages of planting in the autumn instead of the spring:
  1. The nurseries are often still potting most of their plants in spring, so a plant bought in autumn will be better established than a plant bought in early summer, having had lots more time on the nursery.
  2. Plants planted when they are going into dormancy are less likely to suffer from disturbance to their roots than plants planted in spring (when the plant is in full growth); this is very important with trees and shrubs but also applies to perennials.
  3. As your new plants are going into the ground after the [theoretically] dry summer they are less reliant on you for watering, saving you time and money irrigating your borders. This also means that you don't have to worry about watering your new plantings if you go on holiday.
  4. You can spend spring and summer visiting gardens, gathering ideas and sourcing plants in time for autumn planting.
  5. You are less likely to be duped into buying gorgeous plants forced into growth early in spring to satisfy garden centre demand which then suffer (or sometimes die) when they are put out in the garden. Also soft growth is more likely to be damaged by a late frost.
Cornus kousa 'China Girl'- not all autumn fruits have to be edible to earn their place
If you are buying more unusual fruit trees and soft fruits from a specialist you may still have to wait until the plants are lifted from the fields in autumn before you can plant them. Often fruit nurseries (and sometimes ornamental growers) will supply fruit 'bare rooted', meaning that the plants are grown out in fields and only lifted when their leaves have fallen. The plant is then sold to the customer with it's roots wrapped up rather than potted in compost. This has several advantages for the customer in that the plants have been grown in soil which is less likely to fall foul of the vagaries of irrigation than plants in pots, and allows a good strong root system to develop because it is not being contained. Add to this that the trees establish more quickly if planted after their leaves have dropped... just remember to give the tree a good solid stake and a strong tie to support it during winter storms.

Consumers demand their plants to be available in perfect 'in full growth' condition all year round, but it just doesn't work like that. The number of times I have been asked for bare rooted fruit trees in June, only to be told by the angry customer that if we can't supply them when he/she wants them then someone else will be happy to oblige. Good luck to them!

By gardening more in time with the rhythms and cycles of the seasons we will be much more successful in our endeavours- nature is a powerful thing, and a gardener will be much better off working with nature than working against her.