This is no season for gloomy thoughts about the garden. It's the time to look forward to ensure a brilliant garden for next spring.
First principle: never over-tidy. Yes, make the edges of paths and borders look neat; and clear out weeds while the soil is still moist. But hands off most of the leaves. They should be left in place unless they form a smothering mat over perennials. In this case, lift them out carefully and spread elsewhere.
Don't mow down everything sticking its head above the ground. Leave seed-laden plants such as purple coneflower alone. If they are annoying, prop them up and remove the worst of the droopy stalks. You are aiming for a balance between ecological sensitivity and aesthetics.
Perennials such as penstemons, peonies, delphiniums and their ilk are seedless and should be cut back to their rosettes once they start looking lax and unattractive.
When perennials have been stripped of their seeds and look grungy, whack them back. You are aiming for a grouping of graceful forms that will look handsome with a covering of snow. This will include grasses and shrubs.
The second plants with luscious leaves look mushy, cut them right to the ground. Since this has been a hellish year for slugs, make an elixir of ammonia and water (1:4) and pour it around plants. This will add some nitrogen to the soil and, one hopes, get rid of eggs lurking underground.
Some other tasks to take care of:
Book a certified arborist to remove dead branches and trees. Certified because there are too many scam artists in the "arborist" business. Do not be sentimental about trees. If your expert says they are dying, get rid of them. This can happen right into December.
Meantime, you can be shaping relatively young plants as long as there is time left for wounds to heal. Learn how to do this properly or call in an expert. Great pruning is an art and if you leave a shrub or tree mottled with stubs (nasty long bits springing from each cut), it will be vulnerable to bugs and disease.
Now is a great time for planting trees and shrubs. But make sure you plant in a hole that's as deep as the root system and twice as wide. Back-fill with ordinary soil and add a 10-centimetre layer of compost and mulch to the surface. Be extravagant and add another layer of compost on top of mulch for a sophisticated look.
Crazed gardeners will plant until their fingers freeze in place. Some will dig holes for bulbs, save the soil indoors and plant bulbs in late November; others will risk adding new plants right up to frost. Choose what you can handle financially and physically.
Mulch and compost
If there is anything close to a magic bullet in gardening, this is it. Adding compost and mulch will improve any kind of soil. They break up clay soil and add organic matter to sandy soil. Don't bother digging anything in, just add to the surface of the soil and let nature do its job. Worms will draw compost into the soil, mulch breaks down and both feed the soil and therefore the plants.
Remember: Peat moss is sterile and does not add any nutrients to the soil. If you water it heavily and dig it in to a special border, over decades, it will make soil more acidic. But it is not feeding the soil.
Watering is key to a great spring garden. The garden needs lots of water going into winter, but don't allow it to get soggy, which is almost as bad as too little water. Once leaves start falling and before deep frost, make sure you water deeply enough to percolate at least 30 centimetres below the surface. Evergreens are exceptionally needy. They transpire (breathe) all winter and their needles will turn brown and drop. This is called winter burn, but what's really happening is they are sucking needed water away from the roots and slowly damaging themselves. Keep your eye on them during January thaws: They may need watering.
Planning for spring
Take a black-and-white shot of your garden and you'll see the holes, the mush, as well as the solid, shapely stuff. A good analysis before you start work will make an incredible difference to a really good plan. For instance: Are there enough different heights of plants? If you've got tall and small, you need short and eye-level shrubs and perennials. Make a list of what will work with your soil and light conditions.
Temptations, however, await in the nurseries. This is their big sale time. Don't get sucked into buying plants just because they are bargains. Never let a plant into your garden without a good reason and the perfect position for it, plus it must be in tiptop condition. Use control, wait for spring. It's safer to make lists and do some research.
When you are looking up plants, make sure the website is relevant to your area: in British Columbia, sites from Oregon make sense; in most parts of the rest of the country, the Missouri Botanical Garden is marvellous.
Layering the garden
At ground level, use bulbs.
The best way to design a bulb border is to mix up the bulbs, sticking to a harmonious palette of three colours (e.g., pink/purple/white) and by making sure the planting hole is relatively deep. It's the only way to keep squirrels out. Bulbs will make their way to the surface.
In the bottom of the hole, organize large and small bulbs in a casual, relaxed design and thread them like beads on a necklace through the garden. In the midst, add two or three naturalizing bulbs ( scilla, chionodoxa, muscari) to spread over the next decade. For rare and interesting bulbs: phoenixperennials.com is non-pareil.
- If you have cat or dog hair, throw some in the hole; otherwise, roll the bulbs in the cheapest bulk cayenne pepper you can find.
- Nothing is squirrel-proof, but try alliums (six to nine planted among hellebores or other spring blooming plants), species tulips and small cultivars of narcissus.
Add a layer of leaves to top of the compost/mulch cover-up. Make the area appear as untouched as possible. Squirrels are automatically drawn to disturbed spots.
The low level:
Dwarf plants: These plants should be less than two metres. But be wary, dwarf might mean four metres so read tags carefully. Think about getting some foliage colour or variegation into this level.
It's trickier to find small trees and shrubs that will stay at the right height, but judicious pruning can make this height look dramatic.
Every gardener looks forward to the next season. While enjoying the delights of autumn, make magic for next spring.