To tidy or not to tidy?

That is the question at this time of year! And I’ve decided, NOT (too much).

OK, so the lack of daylight hours has a lot to do with my decision. I work full time, so there’s little opportunity to get out amongst the flagging perennials Monday to Friday, and the idea of gardening by (super)moonlight this week has been hampered by cloud. But, let’s face it, for those of us trying to encourage wildlife into our gardens, the traditional end-of-season purge of autumnal debris is no longer the done thing.

Loosen the tidy rein

Don't tidy up autumn herbaceous borders

Autumnal chaos reigns in my borders

We’re no longer advised to ‘prepare our gardens for winter’ by slashing everything to the ground and covering it in a thick blanket of mulch. Instead, we’re encouraged to loosen the tidy rein and let nature do what nature does best. Yes, my borders may look chaotic for a few months, but that frosty dishevelled jumble of vegetation will protect the more tender perennials from frost and provide shelter for a host of beneficial insects, which in turn will offer protein-rich food for the birds.

Jobs for November

That’s not to say that I’m letting myself off the gardening hook completely this month (plus, I do enjoy getting out in the garden at this time of year). For example, it’s not a good idea to leave rotting material lying on top of perennial crowns. It can cause winter rot and will encourage slugs to hang around. So I’ll be clearing away that kind of sludgy leaf debris from the top of my hostas, and adding it to the compost heap instead.

Autumn mulch with compost

Time to put all this lovely goodness back into the soil

I’ll also be dumping plenty of compost onto the beds, where the worms and micro-organisms will work their magic over the winter, putting back some of the nutrients that the plants have taken out over the growing season.

And I will probably rake up a few leaves from the lawn and redistribute them under my shrubs to break down in a more beneficial place.

winter pile of beech leaves

Rake up leaves from the lawn and spread them under your shrubs to rot down over winter

But for the most part, I will be leaving well alone, hoping that the insects and frogs will hibernate in my leaf litter, and seeking my own refuge in front of the lounge fire.

Autumn cuttings

Is it too late to take cuttings of plants that are unlikely to survive the winter? Most of the research I’ve done online suggests that I should have got my cuttings act together earlier in the year, but I’m not convinced.

The vibrant black-eyed susan vine (Thunbergia alata)

The vibrant black-eyed susan vine (Thunbergia alata)

This eye-catching black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata) is a low-maintenance rapid-growing climber that has brought a touch of the exotic to my patio this year. Unfortunately, it is not frost hardy, and I don’t have room to bring it indoors over the winter, so I am attempting to propagate it via cuttings this autumn.

Softwood (herbaceous) stem cuttings are usually taken during the main growing season of the plant, in spring or early summer, but there is enough growth in my vine to make me think some autumn cuttings may be successful.

How to take stem cuttings

Black-eyed susan stem cutting

Black-eyed Susan stem cutting

  1. Select a section of healthy growth, and cut the stem at an angle 3–6 inches below a leaf node
  2. Cut off any leaves on the lower half of the stem so that the stem is bare for potting, and trim the cutting down to just a few leaves
  3. Place the cutting in your potting medium or, as in the case of my black-eyed Susan cuttings, in a glass of water to take root before potting them on
Stem cuttings in water

I’m leaving my cuttings in water first to take root, before potting on in compost

I’m hopeful that I’ll have a modicum of success with these, because the Argyranthemum cuttings that I took in November 2 years ago made it through the winter to produce several healthy new plants.

If you’re taking cuttings at the moment, and have any tips for success, please let me know!

 

 

 

Pear rust

Take my advice: if you see signs of disease on a plant, act on it straight away before it gets worse. Last month I noticed individual bright orange spots on several leaves on my conference pear tree … and I ignored them.

Orange-red spots on leaves: first sign of pear rust

Orange-red spots on upper surface of leaves: first sign of pear rust

One month later, I realised that almost a third of all the leaves on the tree were sporting this season’s colour – rusty orange-red!

Pear rust on leaves, but the fruit is unaffected

Orange spot is the new black spot – but the fruit is unaffected

On closer inspection I found some rather gruesome brown, gall-like growths on the corresponding lower side of each leaf, with alien hair-like projections.

Pear rust: warty gall on the underside of the leaves with hair-like projections

Ew! Warty gall on the underside of the leaves with hair-like projections

With the help of Mr Google, it wasn’t difficult to identify: European pear rust, caused by the fungus Gymnosporangium sabinae.

Breaking pear rust’s life cycle

Apparently, fungal rusts need a living host at all times to survive, so the life cycle of this particular nasty requires two host plants. This summer/autumn, my pear tree has played host to the fungus. Normally, it would then release spores from the underside of the leaves and restart the party on a neighbouring juniper tree. Being evergreen, the juniper would harbour the fungus though the winter, releasing spores in summer to reinfect my pear tree.

I can only hope that by painstakingly removing all the infected leaves (yes, I got on a ladder and cut off and binned every last one of the little blighters) that I have broken the cycle, but of course I may have been too late and spores may already have been released. If the culprit juniper is infected again, then my tree might well get reinfected next year and so the cycle will continue. As it is unlikely that I will be able to track down the culprit juniper, I will have to be more vigilant next year and tackle any infection as soon as it materialises.

The consequences

If left unchecked, heavy infections can reduce the yield of fruit, and I have had noticeably fewer pears this year. More worryingly, the infection can cause cankers in the bark (isolated dead areas), which can make the tree more susceptible to bacteria, fungus and insect attack.

The solution

There is no suitable fungicide available to home gardeners if you want to consume the fruit off your tree. And why have a pear tree if you’re not going to eat the pears?!

So all you can really do is try to break the cycle of  infection by removing as many of the infected leaves as possible and putting them straight in the dustbin or burning them. I appreciate that if you have a huge old pear tree this might not be practical (mine is only 4 years old).

Pear rust: bin or burn the affected leaves

Bin or burn the affected leaves

Fastidiously clear all the dropped leaves from under the tree as well. If your tree has got canker, then you’ll need to cut it out of the bark. I’m hoping I won’t get to that stage!

A healthy tree will fight off infection more effectively, so I will also be clearing around the base of my tree, and giving it some TLC over the next few months, including a good autumn mulch, a winter wash and an early spring feed. I will, of course, also ensure that it gets plenty of water, as we’ve had an exceptionally dry October so far. I’ll also be pruning the tree this winter to avoid overcrowding in the crown and improve the airflow through the branches.

Report your pear rust

Unfortunately, there has been a steady increase in pear rust in the UK over the past 10 years. In order to get a better picture of distribution, the RHS is asking anyone who comes across the disease to report it via its online survey.

If you’ve had a problem with pear rust, please let me know, especially if you have any extra tips for tackling it. Let’s hope next year brings less rust and more pears!

Beat the glut: 2 great beetroot recipes

Beetroot is really easy to grow. No matter how new you are to veg growing, it’s a sure thing. But then what do you do with all those beets?

Fresh from the veg plot: beetroot glut

Fresh from the veg plot: beetroot glut

My personal favourite is roasted beetroot and goat cheese salad, but as the autumn nights start to draw in, here are two easy peasy ways to get creative with your beetroot glut.

Spiced sweet and sour pickled beetroot

Thank you to my neighbour, Alison, for putting me on to this one. This light pickle is sweet and rich, and is the perfect accompaniment to all sorts of foods (fish, cold meats, cheeses, salad …).

Ingredients
1 kg raw beetroot
200g caster sugar
300mL white wine vinegar
200mL cold water
2 star anise
3 cloves
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp olive oil

Heat your oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4. Trim the leaves and most of the stalks off the beetroot, leaving a stump of stalk on each.

Wash and trim your beetroot before cooking

Wash and trim your beetroot before cooking

Wrap each beetroot in tinfoil and place on a baking tray. Roast for 1 hour 15 minutes or until the point of a sharp knife inserts easily into the beet. Leave to cool.

Peel the beets (and get very stained hands), and chop them into large bite-size pieces. Pack the chunks into sterilized jars.

Chop your oooked beetroot into chunks

Chop your cooked beetroot into chunks

For the pickling juice, tip the sugar, white wine vinegar, water, spices and bay leaves into a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Then simmer gently, stirring until all the sugar has dissolved, for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the balsamic vinegar.

Carefully pour the spiced vinegar over the beetroot in the jars (you might have a bit left over). Leave the pickle to cool uncovered, then pour the olive oil over the top and seal the jars.

Et voila! Pickled beetroot. Simples!

Et voila! Pickled beetroot. Simples!

Officially you are only supposed to keep this in the fridge for up to a month, but mine lasted at least 2 months last year with no problems. And as a bonus, when we’d eaten all the beetroot, I mixed the leftover pickling juice with a little olive oil for a fantastic vinaigrette salad dressing.

Beetroot brownies

Forget carrot cake this autumn, try this instead. You won’t regret it.

Ingredients
500g raw beetroot
100g unsalted butter
200g bar plain chocolate (70% cocoa)
1 tsp vanilla extract
250g caster sugar
3 eggs
100g plain flour
25g cocoa powder

Cook and chop the beetroot as per the recipe above. Chop the chocolate and butter up roughly and blend with the warm chopped beets in a food processor. The chocolate and butter will melt as you blend.

Blend the beets, butter and chocolate until it is smooth red and velvety

Blend the beets, butter and chocolate until it is smooth red and velvety

Beat the sugar and eggs together in a large bowl until thick, pale and foamy. Spoon the beetroot mixture into the bowl (it doesn’t look pretty at this stage, but stay with it!), then use a large metal spoon to fold it in. Try to keep as much air in the mixture as you can.

Gently fold in the sifted flour and cocoa powder next, until you have a smooth batter. Pour the mixture into a pre-lined 20cm x 30cm tray bake or roasting tin and bake for 25 minutes or until it has risen all over with a small quiver under the centre of the crust when you shake the pan.

Cool in the tin, then cut into squares.

Beetroot brownies

Yum!

Let me know what you think, and I’d love to know your favourite beetroot recipes too. I’m sure I’ll have another glut to deal with next year.

“Will flower until frost”

With the wind and rain and noticeable drop in temperature, the garden has started to take on a rather dishevelled, limp-around-the-edges persona. The last of the summer-flowering perennials have all but shrivelled and the dampness of heavy dews lingers late into seemingly endless grey, overcast mornings. So thank goodness for those autumnal gems that “will flower until frost”.

The rich jewel tones of the autumn borders

Eye-popping autumn borders

Yes, there are still plenty of perennials and shrubs brightening the darkest corners, even in early November. Here are some of my favourites …

The colours of sunset

Pollen-rich Rudbeckia and Gaillardia splash the borders with the colours of sunset

The elegant Japanese anemone

The elegance of the Japanese anemone

Sedum splendour

Sedum splendour

Long-lived golden nasturtiums brighten gloomy corners

Long-lived golden nasturtiums brighten gloomy corners

Rich jewel tones of aster and cyclamen

Rich jewel tones of aster and cyclamen

Autumn fruit and leaf colour: Berberis berries and the changing leaves of Virginia Creeper

Autumn fruit and leaf colour: Berberis berries and the changing leaves of Virginia Creeper

So enjoy the last of the autumnal colours – in a week or so they will be all but gone.

Bulb lasagne

England would not be the ‘green and pleasant land’ that it is without the rain, but this weekend someone somewhere forgot to turn off the tap! My garden was not so much ‘green and pleasant’ as ‘soaked and soggy’, so I turned to my list of wet weather jobs and retreated to the garage to make some bulb lasagnes – no pasta involved!

The right combination

Planting spring bulbs in a pot is a great way to ensure you have a splash of colour on your patio or doorstep next year, and is ideal for even the smallest of spaces. To prolong your display, layer bulbs (hence the lasagne analogy) that will flower at slightly different times and will grow to different heights. A bit of Internet research suggested that mixed tulips, tête a tête narcissi and dwarf irises work well together, so that’s what I’ve gone for. The pictures next year will prove whether it works or not.

The technique

Take a large frost-hardy container (about 30 cm diameter) with holes in the base, and line the bottom with good drainage material (e.g. broken shards of terracotta pot, ripped-up polystyrene pieces, gravel). Add a layer of compost or bulb fibre, then plant the biggest bulbs, in this case the tulips. They can  be packed in quite closely, but shouldn’t touch. You could probably go for more bulbs than depicted here (but I was splitting bulbs between several pots so was being a bit frugal).

Bulb lasagne, layer 1, tulips

Layer 1: tulip bulbs

Cover with about 5 cm of compost and then add a layer of medium-sized bulbs – in this case tête a tête narcissi and a few standard-sized daffodils (experimenting!).

Bulb lasagne, layer 2, daffodils

Layer 2 : ‘daffodils’

Cover with another 5 cm of compost and add a final layer of the smallest bulbs (irises).

Bulb lasagne, layer 3, dwarf irises

Layer 3: dwarf irises

Add compost to the top of the pot, and water as required. You can finish off with some gravel or slate chippings, which will help to retain moisture. Shelter from frost, and keep an eye on the pot over the winter to ensure it doesn’t dry out.

Finally, as ‘patience is a virtue’, be patient, and wait for Spring.

Planting wood anemones

Anemone nemorosa produces carpets of blooms in spring

Anemone nemorosa produces carpets of blooms in spring

Today I’m planting wood anemones, a first for my garden. Wood anemones provide beautiful carpets of early-spring blooms and, provided there is access to sun, are ideal for planting in semi-shade under trees and shrubs.

Many woodland plants have bulbs or tubers that store food until it is needed to produce new growth. The two varieties of Anemone nemorosa that I’m planting (the blue-lavender ‘Robinsaniana’ and white ‘Vestal’) have fibrous rhizomes that rapidly spread through leaf litter just below the surface. In theory, once I’ve planted a few, they will then naturalize and spread year on year, as even small pieces of rhizome can make new plants.

Anemone nemorosa Vestal rhizome

Anemone nemorosa – Vestal (white) / 5 woody rhizomes planted on corner of raspberry bed, around fern, among tulip bulbs

Anemone nemorosa robinsaniana rhizome

Anemone nemorosa – Robinsaniana (lavender-blue) / 5 woody rhizomes planted under willow tree among tete-a-tete daffodil bulbs

I’m also planting Anemone blanda ‘White Splendour’ (aka Winter windflower) alongside my front driveway for an early splash of colour to lift the spirits as we come and go from the house.

Anemone blanda White Splendour corn

Anemone blanda – White Splendour / 25 corns planted in flower bed bordering driveway in between primroses and lavender

Planting instructions

Anemones should be planted at least 3-5 cm deep and no less than 10 cm apart. Wear gloves to avoid skin irritation. It is highly recommended that you soak the bulbs/rhizomes in water for 24 hours before planting. They thrive best in well-drained soil enriched with plenty of organic matter – hence the compost dig yesterday. The richer the soil, the more flowers each rhizome or tuber will produce.

Soak anemone bulbs for 24 hours before planting

Soak anemone bulbs for 24 hours before planting

Lots more useful information available at Gardening Know How.

Mahonia on the move

mahonia-flowers

Yellow flowers of Mahonia japonica provide winter colour

This weekend we moved our Mahonia japonica. Established trees and shrubs should only be moved if absolutely necessary, as there will undoubtedly be some degree of stress when the plant is uprooted. Unfortunately, this beautiful specimen (currently in full bloom and providing some much-needed late pollen for the bees) had started to grow out at an angle away from the large coniferous hedge behind it. So, although it’s been flourishing in this dry shady spot, the time had come to move it.

It wasn’t a job we were particularly looking forward to (I say ‘we’, as I enlisted the brute strength of my husband on this occasion), as the Mahonia’s spine-toothed leathery leaves don’t make it an easy specimen to get to grips with.

All I can say is … ouch! But in 15 minutes the deed was done (we’d pre-dug the hole), and my Mahonia now has the room to grow tall and straight.

straight-mahonia

… and after

Mahonia japonica

Before …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tips for minimizing the trauma of transplantation:

  • Water the soil well the day before moving
  • Prune lightly if possible
  • Lift the plant with as much rootball intact as possible
  • Prepare the new hole in advance and lift and replant in one operation
  • Mix some fresh compost in with the existing earth
  • On transplanting, firm around the base of the plant carefully
  • Water thoroughly after planting, and keep watering if the weather is dry until it’s established