The Garden in November and beyond
I know that November is not a great month for many gardeners but there are still some attractive features to enjoy even if you have to look a little harder for them.
Firstly there is autumn colour still to be seen although I have to say that this year, certainly where we are, large amounts of cloud and rain together with strong winds have not helped to produce or keep on the trees as much colour as we would have liked. However, there is still some to be found as we enter the month. Our Maples have been good as always and the Larch bonsai have produced their usual straw yellows. The Larch is one of just a few conifers that are deciduous rather than evergreen so autumn colour is one of its many attractive features. Another striking bonsai at this time of year is the Common Beech, Fagus sylvatica which has gone through its yellow phase and is now showing its orange-brown leaves most of which will be on the tree until next spring.
A Larch and a Common Beech both of which are over 30 years old
Of our ‘real size’ trees our two Cherries are starting to show some colour as I write this in the last week of October. The small leaves of Prunus ‘The Bride’ are turning various shades of yellow, orange and red and Prunus ‘Royal Burgundy’ is just starting to show a few red leaves.
Prunus ‘The Bride’ Prunus ‘Royal Burgundy’
Our Katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, is also just beginning to show a glimpse of what is to come in November and I also look forward to enjoying the burnt sugar aroma from its crushed leaves. Another small tree which is teasing us with its first signs of autumn colour is the Cornus kousa (Flowering Dogwood) which gave us many large, cream flowers and bracts in spring. In autumn its drooping, almost leathery leaves interestingly start to turn orange-red from the stalk (petiole) end of the leaf.
Cercidiphyllum japonicum Cornus kousa
In the hedge the Field Maple, Acer campestre, is also in colour with its 5-lobed leaves turning through orange to yellow. A second Maple, Acer griseum, the Paper-bark Maple has also been in colour but I am not convinced that there will be many leaves left on the tree as we enter November. Ours is a young tree that hasn’t developed its papery bark yet but we have enjoyed its colourful leaves over the last few weeks.
Acer campestre Acer griseum
Finally on trees we have also been admiring the yellows of our humble Silver Birch, (Betula pendula) which we planted partly because as a native tree it is particularly good for insects and birds.
Of course it isn’t just trees which produce autumn leaf colour, there are also several equally colourful shrubs as we enter November. One is the lovely Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ which in late October is still showing its summer purple colour which always looks best when the sun lights up the leaves which in November will turn a bright scarlet. The Winter Jasmine, Jasminium nudiflorum, is rightly best known and admired for its bright yellow flowers on bare green stems throughout the winter and into early spring. However, because it is a deciduous shrub, even though its younger shoots remain green, it too shows some good autumn colour.
Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ Jasminium nudiflorum
Another shrub which is grown for its white or pink flowers in the late spring/early summer but which also produces good autumn colour is Deutzia. I always feel that Deutzias are not as widely grown as they should be as they produce masses of flower which are much loved by bees. They look as though they are highly scented but unfortunately they are not! If they were I’m sure they would be as popular as the Philadelphus which flower at much the same time of year. I’m not sure what variety our shrub is as we inherited it with the garden but its autumn show is always very welcome.
Yet more colour in the garden in November comes some of the late-flowering plants, many of which I have mentioned in the last few blogs. The Asters, sorry Symphyotrichums, are still going strong as we enter November and we still have flowers on Penstemon ‘Raven’. The Pheasant Berry, Leycesteria formosa (Himalayan Honeysuckle) is still full of its wonderfully pendulous flowers in red and purple and its berries in the same colours which in our garden are greedily eaten by Blackbirds rather than Pheasants!
Symphyotrichum (Aster) Leycesteria formosa
Also as we begin November there is still some colour on some of the Hydrangea flowers, the Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ is still performing and I hate to brag but we still have several Hardy Geraniums in flower. In the gravel bed the Persicaria affinis, Parahebes and Erigeron are also still doing their thing and on the patio we are still enjoying flowers on the Bidens and Argyranthemum.
Having said all that we all know that the autumn leaf colour is an all too fleeting event and will come to an end at some time in November as will the flowers on the plants I have just referred to. This is why at this time of year gardeners’ thoughts turn to those plants which will provide interest of one kind or another over the coming winter months and persuade us to get out into the garden at least from time to time when the weather permits.
Plants that flower during the winter months are highly valued and although few in number at first glance there are more than you might think. I have mentioned before the Winter Flowering Cherry, Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ and ‘Autumnalis Rosea’ which in milder spells through the winter produce small, semi-double, white-tinged pink or pink flowers on bare stems. Although this is the only winter flowering tree which comes to mind when it comes to shrubs there are a lot more to choose from. Most of their flowers are small but still make striking impacts because they tend to be white or yellow and on deciduous shrubs are carried on bare stems. Also in order to attract pollinators which are not plentiful at this time of year many of the flowers are strongly scented. My list includes:-
Chimonanthus praecox (Wintersweet)- its pendant, fragrant, sulphur-yellow flowers have brown or purple stains inside.
Cornus mas (Cornelian Cherry)- with masses of yellow flowers in small umbels.
Daphne mezereum with its clusters of fragrant, pink or purple-pink flowers on bare stems and Daphne odora, an evergreen with fragrant, deep purple-pink or white flowers.
Erica carnea and E. darleyensis (Winter Flowering Heathers)- these are also evergreen and are the lime-tolerant Heathers with flowers in white, through all shades of pink to purple-pink.
Garrya elliptica (Silk Tassel Bush)- another evergreen which produces long, pendulous catkins comprised of petalless flowers. Male and female catkins are bourne on separate plants with, I hesitate to say, the males being considered more attractive but of course only the females bear the purple-brown berries. The most commonly offered for sale is G. elliptica ‘James Roof’.
Hamamelis (Witch Hazel)- with their fragrant, spidery flowers in yellow, orange or red depending on the cultivar. Ours has just dropped its yellow-orange autumn leaves and is covered in flower buds ready for its winter display.
Lonicera fragrantissima and L. x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’ (Winter Flowering Honeysuckles)- these are deciduous or semi-evergreen shrubs which produce fragrant, creamy-white or white flowers respectively.
Mahonia x media eg. ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’- not all the evergreen Mahonias flower in the winter but the cultivars of M.x media produce their spikes of yellow flowers followed by black berries at this time of year.
Sarcococca (Christmas or Sweet Box)- one of those evergreen plants that is not really noticed until in flower when it stops you in your tracks with its very strong, sweet perfume. Plants have both white and whitish-green male and female flowers with the male flowers having conspicuous anthers growing above the female flowers which go on to produce glossy, almost black berries.
Skimmia- yet another evergreen but these have their male and female flowers on different plants so only the female plants, or those that are self-fertile, produce the bright red berries. The male S. japonica ‘Rubella’ is probably the best known with red-margined leaves and dark red flower buds in autumn and winter opening to small, pink-tinged white flowers in late winter/early spring. If you want to be sure of getting berries go for S. japonica subsp. reevesiana which is self-fertile. All Skimmias have some scent but its intensity can vary a great deal, however, you can always rely on the male S. japonica ‘Fragrans’, sometimes labelled as ‘Fragrant Cloud’ if scent is what you are after.
Stachyurus praecox– this plant produces strange-looking, pendulus flower heads with small, 4-petalled, pale yellow flowers on bare stems which look like giant earrings!
Viburnum x bodnantense eg. ‘Dawn’- produces heavily-scented, tubular, rich rose-red to white flowers depending on the cultivar from late autumn to early spring. Ours is in flower already but it becomes much more striking after the leaves, which don’t have a nice scent, have fallen.
Viburnum tinus eg. ‘Eve Price’ and ‘Gwenllian’- these are evergreen plants which have flowers which are similar to those of the Skimmia in that small, pink or white buds held for most of the winter open to small flowers in the late winter/early spring followed by black berries.
Finally on the subject of winter flowering plants there are a couple of good climbing plants which deserve to be on the list. Firstly the early flowering Clematis, C cirrhosa eg. ‘Freckles’ with its open, cup-shaped, cream flowers with their red flecks and secondly the reliable Winter Jasmine, Jasminium nudiflorum with its bright, 6-petalled yellow flowers all along its green stems. Not many herbaceous plants flower in the winter but one that comes straight to mind is Helleborus niger, the Christmas Rose. This flowers earlier than the other Hellebores which are generally considered to be spring plants and has quite large, white, sometimes tinged-pink, saucer-shaped flowers with green centres and yellow stamen but I cannot guarantee it flowering for Christmas! It is a bit like our indoor Christmas Cactus which came into flower last week! To end the winter flowering plant section I think I can add the earliest flowering bulbs and corms. These would include Cyclamen coum with its pink or white flowers and beautifully marked, heart-shaped leaves, Eranthis hyemalis, the Winter Aconite, with its striking and hardy, yellow flowers and the ever reliable Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, with its nodding white flowers with green markings. Some might also include the earliest flowering Daffodils such as Narcissus ‘February Gold’ and ‘February Silver’.
However good the flowering plants are there is lots of other interest to be found in the winter garden from such features as colourful bark and stems, berries and different shapes and forms. Trees in this group would include:-
Acer griseum (Paper Bark Maple)- with its copper-red, shiny, peeling bark and A. pensylvanicum (Snake Bark Maple)- with its green and white striped bark.
Arbutus unedo (Kilarney Strawberry Tree)- with its rough, shedding, red-brown bark.
Betula eg. utilis var. jacquemontii (Himalayan Birch)- with its almost pure white bark even on young trees.
Prunus serrula (Tibetan Cherry)- with its rich, shining, copper-red bark in horizontal bands.
The best of the shrubs in this section must include the colourful Winter Stem Dogwoods eg. Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ (red), ‘Midwinter Beauty’ (red, orange) and C. stolonifera (yellow). These always look at their best in winter when the leaves have gone and they are lit by low angled winter sun especially when they are planted in a group. To maintain the best colour they do need to be pruned in spring as the new, young shoots which grow following the pruning show much more vibrant colours. A second, more unusual shrub is the wonderfully named Rubus cockburnianus (Ghost Bramble) with its very prickly, deep purple stems which in winter are covered by a waxy, white bloom. It does produce an impenetrable, large thicket and is certainly not for the small garden or the faint-hearted!
As for berries in the winter, a lot depends on whether or not the birds have decided to strip the plants in the late autumn/early winter. If they haven’t then Hollies (Ilex) can provide red winter berries on female plants such as Ilex x altaclerensis ‘Golden King’ (I know it sounds male but it isn’t!), I. aquifolium ‘Handsworth New Silver’ and I. aquifolium ‘Bacciflava’ with its yellow berries. Some Hollies are self-fertile which makes life a lot easier such as I. aquifolium ‘J. C. van Tol’ and ‘Pyramidalis’. Pyracanthas can also provide winter berries especially the ones bearing orange or yellow berries which the birds seem to leave on the plants longer than the red ones!
I have mentioned quite a few evergreens for their flowers and berries but they can also, along with a few deciduous plants, bring considerable benefit to the winter garden through their shapes and forms. Evergreens are vital in any garden not only to retain winter interest but to provide structure and a backdrop for more transient, seasonal displays. For example, shapely conifers such as a pyramid or column can serve as topiary without the work, Phormium (New Zealand Flax) and Cordyline (Cabbage Palm) can produce a spiky, exotic look and climbers like Ivy (Hedera) can disguise unsightly fences, buildings and even compost heaps. There are also some very useful evergreen groundcover plants which play a valuable role in supressing weeds and giving a carpet of different colours eg. prostrate Junipers, Euonymus, Heathers, Begenias, Vinca and silvery Artemesia. Evergreen screens and hedges also provide useful structure by surrounding the entire garden or by dividing it into sections and all become much more noticeable in the winter. Buxus (Box), Taxus (Yew) and Ligustrum (Privet) are traditional choices for clipped hedges but Ilex (Holly), Pyracantha and Escallonia can also form solid hedges as well as producing flowers and berries. A few deciduous shrubs are also grown for their interesting shapes which are much more clearly seen in the winter. Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’ has striking angular shoots as well as lovely spring flowers and good autumn colour. Then there are the two ‘twisted’ shrubs, Corylus avellana ‘Contorta, the Corkscrew Hazel and Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’, the Twisted Willow. There is also a version of the Willow, Salix ‘Erythroflexuosa’ which has twisted, orange-yellow young shoots. All of these are much sort after by flower arrangers for their interesting shapes.
I hope the above has convinced you that there is much to look forward to, not only in November, but also in the winter months to follow as long as you have some of the right plants. If you haven’t then why not get along to The Old Railway Line once the ‘firebreak’ has ended. I’m sure they will have plenty to tempt you with and I know that they will be delighted to welcome you back. November is still a good month for planting as long as the soil is not too wet or frozen and there will be days when you will want to get back outside.
This brings me on to the jobs for November and the full list is to be found as always in the blog archives. Some people would say that the best thing to do in November is to look at the garden from inside the house and on some days I have to agree with them. However, if you are anything like me you will see many things to admire but also others that need dealing with or areas of the garden which need some improvement and as soon as the weather permits will want to be back out there. For Teresa and I we will continue to collect and bag up the leaves for as long as they lie on the grass, cover plants in the beds or have ended up in the pond. Hopefully your greenhouses are sparkling clean again but if not November is still a good month to get this done. The other cleaning job concerns the pots and seed trays which will benefit from a good wash ready for next year. Another necessary, although I agree not very interesting task, is to give your tools a good clean before putting them away for the winter. I have to say that this is where you are grateful to have stainless steel tools if you are lucky enough to do so! A final cleaning job is to empty and clean out any bird boxes as birds will use these during the worst of the winter for shelter and roosting before the new breeding season starts. In the beds and borders we will continue to do a little tidying and weeding, mulching of more tender plants and a light forking over of any bare soil. As I have written before we leave stems and seed heads that are still upright but do remove damaged growth and anything looking really untidy which is all chopped up and added to the compost bin. Some gardeners add their homemade compost at this time but we tend to do this in the late winter/early spring. This brings us neatly on to the question of “to dig or not to dig”? November is traditionally the time for at least starting to dig over the vegetable bed which then gives lots of time for the rain and frost to break down the clods of soil into a crumb structure ready for cultivation in the spring. Digging also allows any weeds or crop remains as well as organic matter such as compost or well-rotted manure to be incorporated into the soil. For new vegetable beds and new beds and borders generally I think this is the best method to use. However, for established beds I now follow the “no-dig” method and not just because it a lot less work! The theory is that once you have cultivated and improved the soil well the first time you will have developed a population of soil-dwelling creatures especially earthworms that in future years will take organic matter usually added in winter or early spring down into the soil for you. This is all helped of course by the normal processes of sowing, planting, weeding and harvesting. Another reason for digging is because the soil becomes compacted during the growing season as it is walked on. In the no-dig system beds are made narrow so that cultivation can take place without standing on the soil. This does mean that some ground is taken up by paths between the beds but most people find that the richer, less-compacted soil allows them to plant more closely so that yields are not reduced. Why not give it a try? It will help your back, your soil and your earthworms which you won’t be chopping up into pieces! If you have used a green manure over the winter as we have this year this does need to be incorporated into the soil in early spring about a month before sowing or planting. This is done by cutting the tops off, leaving them for a few days on the ground and then forking them, rather than using a spade, to turn the remains into the soil. This is much less damaging to the soil population and they will quickly begin to take any layer of compost which is also added to the surface at this stage into the now enriched soil. Whichever method of cultivation you choose to use the most important thing to maintain or improve soil fertility and structure is the annual addition of organic matter in whatever form. This not only provides food for the creatures which will mix and aerate the soil but also some plant nutrients and vital trace elements. It also improves the water holding capacity of the soil but at the same time helps to produce the crumb structure which allows both air and water to penetrate more easily so reducing the chances of any waterlogging in particularly wet spells. This crumb structure is what all gardeners are aiming for in their topsoil and is where the soil particles of sand, silt and clay are held loosely together allowing gaps for air and water by a magic substance called humus which is the final stage in the breakdown of organic material. It is black and sticky which is why topsoil is always darker than subsoil and if I could make it and bag it I would be a very rich man! The old saying is true- the answer really does lie in the soil- and if we look after our soil it will look after our plants. Ok, sermon over!
Well considering that I was wondering what I could possibly write about in November I seem to have come up with something which I hope you have found of interest and use. In my mid-November blog I am going to look at plants which are suitable for difficult areas. We all have areas in the garden which are too shady, have poor soil or perhaps are badly drained but by choosing suitable plants these areas can become as attractive as other parts of the garden.
Until then, keep safe, keep sane and above all keep gardening!