Getting Ahead in Autumn

Ways to get ahead

Carol, Carol’s Garden

Autumn leaves.jpg

Spring is always frantic. If the weather is OK, there is loads to do outside and you can end up working yourself into the ground before the season has really even started. If the weather is bad, you can’t do anything - and if we have snow and frozen ground into March, then the window to get field work done is very short. Autumn is often mild. even if there are frosts, they aren't penetrating and the soil remains warm, usually damp and workable. This is a great time to get a head start on spring and to get as much done now before the weather closes in.

Now is the traditional time for the ‘big clear up’. Although ornamental garden advice is to leave dead heads for birds and overwintering insects, you will not have time to clear everything in spring. So clear all those spent crops. You can preserve places for wildlife by stacking at least some of the stems in a sheltered place. We have a heap near the compost, then we just shred it and add it to the compost in spring. 

It is also a good time to move any perennials or shrubs if you are reorganising beds, or to plant new stock. Do it now, and they have time to establish over winter. There are exceptions to this, already covered.

Sometimes if the weather is good, there will still be crops flowering, but sacrifice may be needed if you want to be completely organised for next year, particularly for tunnel crops. Cosmos, Dahlias, Rudbeckia, Calendula, Amaranthus, Scabious are all crops that may still be flowering, but not at good enough quality or quantity.

Paula and Carol have been harvesting and drying flowers

Claire has been strimming and covering with fabric.

Black plastic covering on Claire’s field in winter.

Black plastic covering on Claire’s field in winter.

Mulching and covering

I was taught, many years ago, by a life-long organic gardener. He had lots of stories and sayings. One thing he said, which I've tried to follow, is to always keep your soil covered. He was talking about soil health. Weather will slowly degrade soil which is exposed to it. Hot, dry ,windy weather will dry it out, and erode it - and microbes cannot survive in dry, moving soil. Too much rain will wash away nutrients and organic matter. A light-blocking cover will help to reduce this and will prevent weed seeds from germinating and will, eventually, kill perennial weeds. The more comprehensive the light block, the more effective it will be. Excluding light (also called occultation) will kill seedlings within about 4 weeks; most perennials in a full growing season, but tough perennials with big root reserves might need a full year or even longer. More on weeds later!

Mulching in autumn will help protect soil from the elements in winter and prepare it for spring. 

You can mulch with:

  • Black plastic. This is the most effective light control. Covering your soil with compost and then black plastic will give you clean, friable soil for spring. You can often get second hand supplies from livestock farms, or buy new. It is tough and can be resumed for many years. When you remove it in spring, you'll probably have a healthy population of slugs, voles and worms under there!

  • Weed suppressing permeable membrane. This is a woven plastic fabric, which allows water through. It does a similar job to plastic, but is better for planting through as it allows water and air to pass to the plant roots. It is not quite so effective as a light barrier and some weeds will root down through it.

  • Organic mulches - these will add different amounts of nutrient, as well as humus to the soil and so will positively improve the structure and water & nutrient holding capacity of your soil. They are not as effective at blocking light from weeds as the barrier methods, but thick layers can reduce weed growth as well as retaining moisture. Ideally, an organic mulch will not bring weeds of its own, ie. weed seeds or roots. So hot-composted council green waste, treated spent mushroom compost, spent hops are all pretty much weed free. Un-composted materials such as straw and bark may bring seeds with them. Manure and home made compost almost certainly will too!

  • Degradeable sheets eg. cardboard, newspaper, cellulose sheets. These will all block light temporarily, until they rot down. There are often used as a temporary barrier until plants are established, or underneath an organic mulching layer.


Freshly delivered Council Green Waste ready for spreading as a mulch

Freshly delivered Council Green Waste ready for spreading as a mulch

Infrastructure: Fencing, supports, irrigation, paths

Attempt by Claire to keep deer out of new perennial beds!

Attempt by Claire to keep deer out of new perennial beds!

I always think of infrastructure type jobs as being good things to do in winter - so sorting fencing, checking rabbit proofing, sorting irrigation, maintaining paths and plant supports - could all be done in winter. But who want to be wrangling with hoses and water in January? So get started on some of this now….

  1. Check your perimeter fences and hedges, are they stock-proof if they need to be? Check rabbit fences for gaps etc. Be ready to make repairs - all the gaps appear as the leaves fall and hedges are cut. Rabbit fences need to be 60cm high, and remember they will jump or even climb if there are handy objects to help them over.

  2. Irrigation might deserve a week of its own! None of us use lots of irrigation, but this will depend on your site and climate. Prioritise those areas and plants which need it most - covered areas (tunnels, etc), thirsty crops like roses, sweet peas, dahlias, newly-planted plants of any kind. Set up leaky hoses or t-tape in the most important areas. Perhaps a walking hose might work (a moveable leaky hose that you can take from place to place as needed). You can get advice from suppliers. Things to consider are:

  • Can you harvest and store more water - either in free-standing water collection structures, or off existing roofs. Unless you can get the water store to be high up so it will feed water by gravity, you will need a pump of some kind to get the water to where you need it.

  • Whether you are using stored water a borehole, or mains water, you will need a means of distributing it to where you need it. This can be a series of leaky pipes, t-tape, pipes, etc, fed from a longer manifold or solid pipe or hose which connects them all up, with valves to turn sections on & off so you can just send water where you need it.

Thank you to Pat Cottam of the Forgotten Garden, who's sent us this picture of her ingenious water collection device. She says "  The biggest problem with these is that they have to be high enough to give you pressure with the drop. We have since put more higher up the field to feed grapes and another tunnel which I use on a daily basis (still no spring water). All the tanks are left open with a pipe at the base attached to all but with a main on off lever. I have a very long hose to fit and can attach pumps also. Also makes a very good sheep shelter! KR Patx

Thank you to Pat Cottam of the Forgotten Garden, who's sent us this picture of her ingenious water collection device. She says "

The biggest problem with these is that they have to be high enough to give you pressure with the drop. We have since put more higher up the field to feed grapes and another tunnel which I use on a daily basis (still no spring water). All the tanks are left open with a pipe at the base attached to all but with a main on off lever. I have a very long hose to fit and can attach pumps also. Also makes a very good sheep shelter! KR Patx

  • Do a rough cost:benefit - the cost of setting it up and of the water vs the time it takes to do the watering manually, and potential lost crops. There are no hard and fast guidelines, you need to judge for your own site.

  • If you already have some irrigation, does any need replacing, fixing. can you make life easier with taps, timers, pressure regulators?

  • Check support structures - posts, netting, wires etc. order in replacements ready for a day when you can get out and work on them.

Which of your beds may need irrigation next year? Make an irrigation plan

Waterbutts with soaker hoses attached. We’d fill up the butts with a hose (while we were doing other jobs) and it would then soak out onto the plants without us having to stand there and water

Waterbutts with soaker hoses attached. We’d fill up the butts with a hose (while we were doing other jobs) and it would then soak out onto the plants without us having to stand there and water

Question: Which of your beds may need irrigation next year? Make an Irrigation Plan.

Tools, Equipment, Stores

Get ahead on your maintenance and stocks before winter. Clean, sharp tools work better and are less damaging for you to use. Sharp secateurs work more efficiently and are less likely to strain your hands. 

So its time to get your shed in order!

Time to check your tools!

Time to check your tools!

  • Sort out, clean, sharpen and check over all your tools. Get any machinery cleaned and serviced, especially if its going to be stored away over winter (lawn mowers?) Do you need to replace any? Now is the time, before you really need them (See video on how to sharpen your secateurs

  • Tidy up all your pots and trays, check you have enough un-broken ones for what you will need next year. Get them stored in stacks so you can find them easily in spring.

  • Check your stocks of sundries and start a list of what you need, (or download our checklist below to do a stock-take) so you only need to make one order or shopping trip - compost, vermiculite/perlite, fertilizers/feed, irrigation components, string, netting, weed suppressing membrane and pegs, small tools etc

  • Get the chimney swept, light a fire, and go and sit by it with a seed catalogue!

Seed list planning_.jpg