The onset of autumn always makes me think of my mother. She was possibly the only person I have ever met who disliked summer. I can’t recall seeing her on a beach after I was aged about eight. By that time, she used to pack me off in the company of older siblings to catch the bus to the beach. I am sure she thought a beach bunny was a lop-eared creature who lived in the sand dunes. Her lifestyle never encompassed hot chips on the sand, summer barbecues or sitting around under a sun umbrella with a cold drink in hand.
No. My mother was a Serious Gardener and the hot and dry of summer was a constant irritation to her as it inhibited her compulsion to rearrange the plants in her garden and divide her perennials. I think radio cricket commentaries used to be broadcast on the Concert Programme (maybe they still are) and the only time in my life that I can remember my mother using excessively strong language (the f word in fact) was apropos of summer cricket commentaries. I was so shocked I can still remember it many years on. I think the cricket became inextricably bound up with her boredom and frustration on summer afternoons.
As soon as the evening temperatures lowered and the autumn rains came, she would come alive again and contemplate her garden with renewed enthusiasm and delight.
I am cut from a different cloth and I find autumn a slightly melancholy time. I don’t like the prospect of cold weather. But the garden does beckon for its autumn cleanup. A gardening colleague tells me she leaves all her seeding plants long into winter to provide food for the birds. It is an admirable sentiment if you don’t mind the scruffy look and the chance that some plants will seed down in abundance and realise their weed potential. I’m afraid the birds have to make do here as our autumn round includes cutting off seed heads and removing dying foliage. Mark is paranoid about weediness and there are some plants that are only permitted to grow here as long as their flowers are whipped away before the reproductive urge gets too far advanced.
The magnolia leaves have started falling in a gentle sort of way. We have many magnolias, but fortunately only one where we have to rake up all the leaves because of its location. Unfortunately it is one of the very largest of our specimens – the original Iolanthe. The volume of leaves that fall from now until winter is prodigious. Well beyond wheelbarrow capacity. Wool bales are the only way to deal with this volume. I don’t normally advocate raking up all the autumn leaves and removing them. They are part of nature’s cycle and rot down to feed the soil and repress the weeds. In the case of Iolanthe, we have to remove them because half fall on the driveway and the rest would smother the garden below her but I hasten to say that we load them out to the compost heap and in due course return the compost to the garden. In most cases, raking back the fallen leaves to closer in to the trunk of trees is all that is required and they can be left to decompose and enrich the soil for their donor.
If you don’t own a leaf rake, then go and buy one. They are cheap and far easier to use than the ordinary garden rake, being designed so that the prongs do not dig into the ground. In our experience, the metal pronged leaf rakes are more effective than the ones with moulded plastic heads.
In mild climates such as Taranaki (bar the mountain) and Wanganui, autumn is a better time for planting trees and shrubs than spring. There is still sufficient warmth left in the soil for the plant to settle in and start making some root growth and it will not have to cope with the stress of summer heat and dry. It is not just a publicity device on the part of plant retailers when they advertise autumn planting. It is only tradition that has spring as the main planting season. Good gardening practice and common sense would see far more done in autumn.
Garden centres will be taking delivery of new season’s stock now. In times past when almost all plants were grown in the field (as we say in the trade – in other words planted in the ground), plants could not be lifted and sent out to garden centres until late autumn and winter. Plants dug out from the ground usually leave a goodly amount of roots behind and the plant can get stressed. Digging them in cooler temperatures reduces that stress. Likely it was this practice which led to springtime being touted as the main planting season. Garden centres did not take delivery until July or August. Nowadays the majority of plants are container grown and therefore available all year round. So there is no reason to wait if planting is on your agenda.
Garden centres will often quit last year’s stock cheaply to make space for fresh plants. These plants can look a little tired and it is usually because they have outgrown their pot or bag and they may be hungry. Some garden centres do not feed their plants and the poor things will have run out of any fertiliser they had. If the plant still has healthy bark and some foliage, don’t be put off by its less than pristine appearance. Walk away if it is both old and loose in its pot – odds on the roots are less than adequate. But if it is rootbound, you can plant it well and it should respond with a great vote of thanks and lots of fresh growth in spring.
By planting it well, I mean in well cultivated soil (it needs loose, friable soil around it to get its fresh roots in to). So the planting hole does need to be larger than the rootball. Add compost or humus if your soil is inhospitable. Add it anyway if you have some around. If the plant is in a plastic bag (called PBs or planter bags), cut the bag off it the roots are very tight. I make no apology for repeating again that our advice is to resist the temptation to fluff out the roots and do not cut them unless the main root visibly winds its way round and round the pot. Most people do far more damage than good teasing out the roots. If the surrounding soil is friable and fertile, the plant will stretch its own roots out as it starts to grow. If you have to, four knife cuts down the side is all that is required.
If you are using compost, there is not a lot of point in using fertiliser as well in autumn. The time the plant needs feeding is when it is making its spring growth. You can add some if it makes you feel happier, but most of it will get lost in the cold and damp of winter. Deciduous plants do not need feeding at this time of the year. They are just about to go dormant. Just don’t forget to get round with the fertiliser as soon as the plant looks like it is going into growth.
Forget the English habit of putting the garden to sleep for winter. In our mild climate, the gardening calendar is just starting a new planting year.