A year into developing our new little garden as sustainably and cost-effectively as possible, things are gradually taking shape. The woody potentillas, viburnums and Parthenocissus I rooted as cuttings and layers last year have doubled – and in some cases quadrupled – in size, climbers are inching up the fences and, remarkably, the formerly shoulder-high almond tree now peeps over at the neighbour’s garden.
A vibrant accumulation of annual, biennial and herbaceous flowers filled out the beds this summer – all grown from seed, plugs or pilfered divisions. Among them are hardy perennials fattened by June’s heat and July’s relentless rain to the point of needing splitting again. There have been crops of salad leaves, rocket, dill and parsley, a few tomatoes, raspberries and growbag potatoes, though the shifting sunlight across the seasons has been something to get acquainted with: an area I’d assumed would be bathed in summer sunshine proved inadequately bright for the bronze fennels and blue salvia I’d planted; in other areas a topping of mulch was needed to combat overexposure.
So, autumn is the time for pause, to take stock of the spring and summer growth and note the gaps, failures, thrivers and space invaders for next year. That said, tasks loom for the months ahead. These are the five jobs I’ve prioritised for autumn that offer a break from the mundanity of weatherproofing fence panels and hoicking toy cars out of the catmint …
Sow hardy annuals
Strip away the annuals – the tumbling California poppies, lemony cosmos and tall, vivid orange Mexican sunflowers that have brought the garden to life this summer – and you’ll be left with a paltry lot: scattered perennials and shrubs in their infancy. But this is why annuals and biennials are so brilliant, providing temporary height and colour while you wait for the slower-growing structural plants to get established. I get a handful of frost-hardy annuals growing this side of Christmas, sown either directly into the ground (best for cornflowers, poppies, bronze fennel) or into reusable 9cm pots on the kitchen windowsill (Orlaya, Ammi, scabious), whose resulting seedlings I’ll prick out into individual pots and overwinter in the cold frame (see previous piece for makeshift cold-frame inspo).
Using plastic takeaway containers as trays for sowings was my discovery of last year. They’re easily manoeuvrable, fit two 9cm pots perfectly, and you can pour water into the bottom for the pots to soak up.
Train climbing plants
Among the few plants I bought new for this garden were two bare-root climbing roses: Rosa ‘The Pilgrim’ (soft yellow) and R. ‘Claire Austin’ (creamy white). Why? Because roses can take time to develop from cuttings and with so much uninspiring fence to cover, I wanted to get a few things moving. Throughout this first year in the ground, I’ve let them grow untethered, deadheading spent flowers but allowing the vigorous stems to reach upwards; the higher the better.
Now it’s time to bring those stems horizontal. As for so many climbing plants (for example, wisteria, jasmine, hydrangea), the further into winter this is done, the more tricky it will become as the stems stiffen. In autumn, the year’s growth is still pliable, and by tying rose stems level – whether down on to tensioned wires, a trellis or ground stakes – you’ll produce unaccountably more flowering shoots next year than if left upright.
Make your own organic fertiliser
I’ve developed a mild addiction to liquid seaweed fertiliser as an all-round booster for annuals, dahlias, roses and fruit bushes. It stimulates flower and fruit production, increases resilience and promotes healthier growth. Organic fertiliser is all the more indispensable now that I’m gardening on chalk – typically nutrient-poor – but it’s also costly. So I’m making my own comfrey fertiliser.
A UK-native wildflower and an inexpensive perennial, common comfrey (Symphytum officinale) accumulates key nutrients – notably potassium – in its abundant leaves. Cut a few stems, strip the foliage and throw it into a bucket of water. In just under a month you’ll have a powerful, enriching feed ready for watering the leaves – or roots – of selected plants. Dilute at roughly half a cup to a large watering can before applying, but be warned: it smells truly horrific. My comfrey stewing bucket is kept at the farthest reaches of the garden. Nettles also work.
Be canny with your autumn bulb order
In autumn everyone is either planting – or hurriedly ordering – spring bulbs. But in most of the UK, the ground remains diggable well into November; there is no need to rush out and plant narcissi, alliums or tulips sooner. You just want to avoid the ground freezing solid before you get to it.
My advice is to choose bulbs more likely to return each year, and those that, once transferred from a pot or window box, will look natural – or indeed naturalise – in the garden. Favourites include bright white Allium cowanii, the bee-magnet Allium siculum, low-growing Tulipa turkestanica and white summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum). I’m planting just a handful of bulbs this year, but in larger quantities as distinct clumps that can be easily relocated, notably the simple, white allium A. nigrum and the reliably perennial Tulipa sylvestris.
Prepare new beds through no-dig method
Our garden was predominantly lawn when we took it on, but I’ve etched away at the grass gradually, not wanting to end up with areas of exposed earth. Now with two beds close to capacity, and plenty of cuttings and seedlings gearing up, it’s time for an extension. I’m opting for the no-dig approach, which avoids disrupting the existing soil structure and its resident micro-organisms and fungi. Placing overlapping cardboard in the shape of the new bed, I’ve soaked it, and spread four inches of compost on top – plants will be planted into this without disturbing the soil below. You can do this on top of grass – the turf is killed off through light deprivation, the weeds beneath suppressed. A few perennial weed exceptions are better removed before laying the cardboard: bindweed, bramble and dock.
The compost topping I’m using is a blend: part peat-free compost, part organic matter (a mix of well-rotted horse manure and homemade compost). The organic gardener Charles Dowding wrote the handbook on the no-dig approach, and is its best known advocate: more detailed information can be found at charlesdowding.co.uk.