Gardening Year, Greenhouses, How To, Paul Peacock - Mr Digwell

Sometimes the November garden seems like July
Sometimes the November garden seems like July

The old coats are dusted off. Gardening in hats and coats, boots and string tied trousers. Hardly moving against the wind, spectacles splattered with fat raindrops that fly up the valley looking for someone to annoy. In and out of focus the last blooms of Autumn brighten us, feeling warm-hearted and wondering how on earth dahlias face the weather with such exuberant joy.

But cold fingers and cheeks make working in the November garden peevish. Snatched jobs, unfinished projects punctuated with promises of getting back on the job, later, tomorrow, when I have warmed up a bit, when it stops raining, maybe.

The opposite of November is April, when we are sowing and planting, and although it is cold in April, snowy cold, somehow it’s not so doom laden as November. But there is plenty to do, between the showers. At least April warms up, November gets darker and colder, and even though we are all glad of the clocks going back, we gardeners regret the sudden disappearance of the light.

Sowing and planting:

It is possible to sow and plant. Lettuce, radish, spinach, onions. Yes, you can sow onions in a cold greenhouse. You have to wait a while for germination, but by the time Spring arrives, they are well on the way to being transplanted.

Believe it or not you can sow peas now. Keep them under a cloche, more for protection from mice than anything else. They will germinate, and then stop growing when the temperature really drops, and burst into life in the Spring.

The cabbage variety ‘All Year Round’ can also be sown now with pretty much the same results. Now I have a trick with cabbage at this time of the year. I sow the same variety in pots of compost indoors. What you get is a plant that grows tall and doesn’t look much like a cabbage at all. But the leaves are edible, they still cook like cabbages, they still taste like cabbages. I tend to eat them in salads. They do just as well in the cold greenhouse.

And sometimes the November garden seems like November
And sometimes the November garden seems like November

You can still plant onion sets and garlic, particularly garlic. It rather reminds me of my grandmother, who used to call me ‘brass-neck’ quite a lot, can’t think why. But garlic comes in two forms, hardneck or softneck. Hardneck varieties have a thicker central stalk and bigger corms, softneck have smaller corms, more paper and more flavour.

Of all my favourite is Chesnock Wight, a hardneck. If you don’t manage to plant garlic this month, Solent Wight can be planted as late as January.

Jerusalem artichokes can be planted now. Treat them a little like potatoes, bury them at about 30 cm and they will pop up in Spring when the soil warms. Why November? They get the earliest start, and since they are very hardy, they are not bothered by frost, though I do plant them a little deeper than Spring planted tubers.

Actually it is a sunflower, not a relative of the globe artichoke at all. And they are said they are aphrodisiac in nature. The queen of Henry IV of France, Catherine de Medici was said to eat hardly anything else.

I rather envy pipe smokers. Well only inasmuch as it seems cosy, sitting in the shed on rainy, sleety days, puffing on a pipe, keeping the fingers warm. But there are plenty of things to be doing indoors in November.

Cleaning and disinfecting pots and utensils. Sharpening tools, especially spades and cutting tools. A good grindstone is one of your most important pieces of equipment. And get into the greenhouse, if you haven’t already, and clear out all the old compost filled pots with dead plants in them, shift the moss between the glass before the frost comes and freezes, expanding to cause a broken pane.

Clear your gutters, and add some bleach to your water butt. This will clear any algae or other nasties growing within, and will have all vanished away before you come to use it again.

Mr Digwell gardening cartoon logo

Paul Peacock studied botany at Leeds University, has been the editor of Home Farmer magazine, and now hosts the City Cottage online magazine. An experienced gardener himself, his expertise lies in the world of the edible garden. If it clucks, quacks or buzzes, Paul is keenly interested.

He is perhaps best known as Mr Digwell, the cartoon gardener featured in The Daily Mirror since the 1950s. As Mr Digwell he has just published his book, A Year in The Garden. You can also see more about him on our Mr Digwell information page.

See all of Mr Digwell’s posts.

Allotment, Composting, Flowers, Gardening, Gardening Year, Paul Peacock - Mr Digwell

Nicotiana
Nicotiana look lovely, but keep them deadheaded for the best display at this time of the year.

How long will it last?

I don’t think it really matters. The still air, silvered light, some might think thin especially when it takes all day for the sun to appear over the trees, October is that cool evening at the end of the day, a time of rest and peace. And the best seat in the house is in the garden.

I love the October garden.

Yes, there are plenty of jobs to do, hedges and lawns to trim and cut, beds to clear, fruit to gather, but to sit amongst the insects sipping the very last drop of nectar from the nearly spent flowers, wings caught in the ethereal light is the nearest we get to a transport to another world.

The smell of far away burning fires reminds you that someone, somewhere, is doing some gardening.

The compost heap is a great place to start, largely because we have so much plant material about. Herbaceous borders we are clearing, cabbage roots, carrot tops, a million vegetables that have been pulled, preserved, stored or eaten.

New raised beds
New raised beds, and yes, I need to cut the grass before I cover with membrane.

I don’t compost potato vines or tomato vines because I might just infect the heap with fungal blight. I know the heap is supposed to be hot and this kills diseases, but you cannot always guarantee it’s uniformly hot etc. Besides, I worry about it. So I don’t compost it. What I do is burn it, and then the ashes go onto the compost heap.

Any really herbaceous material gets mixed with newspaper. This soaks up the liquid, particularly from material like grass clippings, that gets terribly wet. It’s good also to intersperse some woody material, anything that bulks out the material, and maintains a few air pockets.

Then, of course, it’s raining leaves! The paths, lawn, pavements and roads are increasingly covered with falling leaves. I sweep them into piles and give them a day to allow any wildlife to escape before popping them into a wire basket for a year to rot down. You get really wonderful seed compost from leaf mould.

The wire basket is important, being mostly wood, their rotting takes a great amount of air, even though it gets cold, it’s the air that does the job.

Autumn leaves
Leaves keep falling on me ‘ead! but they’ll soon be in the wire basket rotting down!

More than anything, October is garlic time. I am amazed how hardy garlic actually can get.

Planted in the teeth of the first gales of the year usually around the middle of the month, they sprout nicely and grow into pencil-sized plants that resist the worst of frosts, indeed they thrive on it, their best flavour coming from a good frosting.

Do buy good quality corms for planting in the UK. Avoid supermarket ones, which only work in very special circumstances. There are two types, hard-neck and soft-neck. Hard-neck garlic has a central stalk from which all the corms come. They are usually bigger, more robust in flavour, but there are fewer of them than soft-neck garlic which has no central stalk and smaller corms, but with more of them.

It is remarkable how summer bedding continues to do well deep into the month, and it is worth deadheading these plants, even if it is too late for replacement flowers. Something like a nicotiana throws out white and pink flowers, and looks lovely, so long as you remove the dead flowers. When there is a mixture of dead and new on the same plant, the garden looks as though the end of the year has come with neglect.

Do you need a low maintenance garden?

The very idea had always seemed to me to be spoiling my fun. After all, I like digging and weeding. But whereas age might not weary nor the years condemn, a heart attack certainly messes with your gardening plans. So for me, like so many, it’s time to make the garden easier to work with.

The starting of a hedge
The starting of a hedge, cotoneaster, mahonia, all we need now is the blackthorn.

This has started with raised beds. We pulled out, well I started but my son finished, a huge hypericum, and the spare land this triffid was taking we installed some raised beds.

We made them from decking plants, treated wood, cheap and easy to use, but if I didn’t have a son-in-law who was not only handy with wood, but strong enough to carry the beds into position, I would have bought them. They will make life so much easier.

My next purchase is about 50 sq metres of ground cover material. Not just the flimsy stuff, but the really heavy duty material. It will cover a significant part of the garden so I can cover with more beds, and then for making paths between the beds, which will then be covered with gravel.

Where I live there isn’t a lot of garden theft, but I do like to cover the paths with something that makes a noise to deter anyone walking on them, so they might just give up and go somewhere else if they are up to no good.

With this in mind, the bottom of the garden needs a little attention. Fortunately for us it runs into a farm where two of the nastiest dogs you could imaging are constantly on guard, but I am a little worried about these gorgons getting through into ours, and now we have become grandparents, we would feel a little safer with a good hedge. So we are planting a mixture of blackthorn (not just for the sloes but the two inch thorns!) some Mahonia japonica and various other nasties that will keep man and beast at bay.

It is remarkable how fast and stock proof this combination goes, and you can eat the fruits of both plants – actually, ask me for the recipe for mahonia lemonade sometime!

So, how long will it last, this balmy early Autumn? So long as there is a garden to look at, to potter about in, or simply to sit in the shed with a warm mug, peeping through the door, gardening’s a great life!

Mr Digwell gardening cartoon logo

Paul Peacock studied botany at Leeds University, has been the editor of Home Farmer magazine, and now hosts the City Cottage online magazine. An experienced gardener himself, his expertise lies in the world of the edible garden. If it clucks, quacks or buzzes, Paul is keenly interested.

He is perhaps best known as Mr Digwell, the cartoon gardener featured in The Daily Mirror since the 1950s. As Mr Digwell he has just published his book, A Year in The Garden. You can also see more about him on our Mr Digwell information page.

See all of Mr Digwell’s posts.

Gardening, Gardening Year, Grow Your Own, Paul Peacock - Mr Digwell

The buddleia is growing over my chair and - even though I like it - orange pollen messes my shirt!
The buddleia is growing over my chair and – even though I like it – orange pollen messes my shirt!

People get themselves into a bit of a muck-mess when it comes to pruning trees – and any fruit for that matter! But in fact it’s quite simple and once you have the basic idea about what you are doing, it becomes second nature.

Always try to assess the tree, look for branches that make up the main skeleton of the tree, and leave these alone. However, pruning isn’t the same as lopping, and if your tree is too large, then the best advice you can get is to employ a tree surgeon to do the job.

The cost of a branch crashing through your greenhouse, or worse, is rather more than the cost of a day’s work. Never attempt to lop a large tree, wood is really heavy, and you simply will not have the correct equipment for the job.

That said, it is also hard work, and a few days (or longer) flat on your back on painkillers just isn’t worth it.

Winter density lettuces - one of those lettuces that, when you bite into it, let's you know you are eating a salad, it's so thick.
Winter density lettuces – one of those lettuces that, when you bite into it, let’s you know you are eating a salad, it’s so thick.

If you care cutting a branch that is more than an inch thick, use a saw. Always start underneath cutting upwards upwards. This stops the wood peeling off when the branch falls, which will be a site of infection. Usually branches are quite heavy, and when you get to the last few cuts it is prone to break uncleanly, or at best, peel back the bark on the stump. Cut as close to the main branch as possible.

You can finish off these larger cuts with wound paint, which acts as a plaster, keeping infections out.

All pruning should take place in the dormant season, when there are no leaves on the tree, and before the Spring, when the sap in the tree is rising and any cutting will cause the tree to ‘bleed’.

The garlic we grew - not so much, is drying, and we should be planting fresh soon.
The garlic we grew – not so much, is drying, and we should be planting fresh soon.

First of all you are protecting the plant from itself. When branches cross over and touch, they rub and bang in the wind, and this causes damage. Since fruit tree wood is particularly susceptible, we need to cut out the possibility of this happening, otherwise you’ll get fungal infections where the damage occurs.

Cut out any branches that overlap or touch in such a way to make sure the plant that remains looks like a goblet, or wine glass. This is the best shape for allowing the wind through the branches, cutting down humidity, and therefore lessening the chance of disease.

The second thing to do is to cut out any small branches that are facing inwards, ones that will, in later months and years, crown the inside of the tree and disrupt the constant flow of air through it. Or will touch other branches were they allowed to grow.

Take cuttings in September. Nothing makes you feel like a proper gardener, and you get free plants.
Take cuttings in September. Nothing makes you feel more like a proper gardener, and you get free plants.

This is the major part of pruning a tree. If you wish, you can now take off some of the height of the tree too, should you feel it necessary, but remember, taking out the terminal buds will cause more branching, which will probably need to be prunes out at a later date.

On fruit trees it is a good idea to reduce the number of fruiting buds, on each branch, so the plant isn’t overwhelmed next Spring. You can tell the fruiting spurs, they form a little mass altogether. Just cut out a few per branch, and this encourages better fruit next year.

Mr Digwell gardening cartoon logo

Paul Peacock studied botany at Leeds University, has been the editor of Home Farmer magazine, and now hosts the City Cottage online magazine. An experienced gardener himself, his expertise lies in the world of the edible garden. If it clucks, quacks or buzzes, Paul is keenly interested.

He is perhaps best known as Mr Digwell, the cartoon gardener featured in The Daily Mirror since the 1950s. As Mr Digwell he has just published his book, A Year in The Garden. You can also see more about him on our Mr Digwell information page.

See all of Mr Digwell’s posts.

Flowers, Gardening, Gardening Year, How To, Paul Peacock - Mr Digwell

Sometimes, because of life’s changes, work, poor health, family or whatever, you miss out on what you love. I have friends in the garden, and sometimes I ignore them. Well, actually, all the plants in the garden are my friends. I don’t care what they are, how common or exotic, I love them all the same.

And yes, I talk to them! Sometimes my best conversations are with plants, you see they always agree with me and we share a point of view. So you will understand that – apart from being quite mad, sometimes, when there are some old friends I simply have missed out on, I get rather melancholic.

Gone but not forgotten, the white bluebells now bearing fruit - see you next year old pal!
Gone but not forgotten, the white bluebells now bearing fruit – see you next year old pal!

I have found it difficult to physically walk to the end of the garden these past months. Down there in the hedge are to be found some white bluebells that make an appearance each year, and this year I only managed to see them once they had finished flowering and were literally past their best. A short walk away there is a wood, full of bluebells, and what a sight they are! But these little whites are solitary and special.

Now having plants as friends can cause you some problems. I have to confess loving weeds, and always feel a little guilty pulling them up. So Ii try and keep a space for them when I can. This year, so far, has been the year of the buttercup, and aren’t they beautiful?

Don't turn your nose up at buttercups, they are one of the most elegant plants in the garden.
Don’t turn your nose up at buttercups, they are one of the most elegant plants in the garden.

So the edge of my lawn is punctuated with a stand of field buttercups, and if I lift my head, across the valley, I can see a whole field of them, and on a warm Sunday I can imagine myself in a huge hundred acre field of yellow.

There are times when old friends have mishaps. when we moved here there was a clematis in a pot, growing up a trellis. The pot was about 6 inch diameter, and the plant went up about 20 feet!

Clematis - you can't kill them, they just keep coming back - thankfully!
Clematis – you can’t kill them, they just keep coming back – thankfully!

During our first summer the trellis fell off and I had to remove the plant. The roots had gone through the bottom of the pot and disappeared under the paving of the patio.

We get lots of questions about clematis. You will find, on the internet, all kinds of methods about pruning them, none of which are actually correct. The truth is there are two groups for pruning this brilliant climber.

If it flowers in the Spring, such as C. montana, then don’t bother at all, just keep it trim as you need. All the rest cut back as short as you like on Valentine’s Day – call it a massacre if you will.

Yellow Flag: irises make a great display and in the autumn you can divide them and make more
Yellow Flag: irises make a great display and in the autumn you can divide them and make more

Anyway, back to the old friend. I took a spade and cut the root at ground level and thought no more about it, until a few weeks ago when a hot day snooze found me waking to the sight of the old pal climbing the wall again.

I never have a better time than when talking to the iris. We have a strong bond, we two. I sometimes think I get more sense from them than anyone else in the household.

But this year they have a problem that needs fixing. It is the invasion of nettles. Nettles are hungry plants, beautiful in their own right – I love the geometry of the leaves, and the stings are so elegant when you look at them through a microscope.

But their heavy profusion means only one thing: the septic tank needs emptying, because there is a leakage. Nettles grow where there is a lot of nitrogen in the soil, you often see them in fields where cattle or sheep have gathered.

If it's archetecture you want, you would go a long way to better a nettle, but these ones spell trouble in the garden!
If it’s archetecture you want, you would go a long way to better a nettle, but these ones spell trouble in the garden!

It has come at an opportune time, the iris need dividing and replanting and this I will do in the autumn, so that next year there will be even more of them for a summertime chat!

Now, I am blessed with an ancient hawthorne in the garden. I wish everyone would grow them just because of the aroma of the flowers. In case you are somewhat bemused by my having plants as ‘friends’ then spend a little time thinking about hawthorne.

It is said to be terrible bad luck to burn the wood, or cut the plant without asking permission and when in flower you are not supposed to sleep under its branches, or you will be pulled down into the underworld to meet Bottom and his pals. I can well believe it!

Can't wait for these white roses to burst into flower.
Can’t wait for these white roses to burst into flower.

During my recent poor health I have fallen asleep, when the rain has left me a warmer blanket, under the hawthorne many times, and never have I had a more relaxing, deeper sleep. Thankfully the underworld left me alone, I didn’t grow donkey ears nor thought myself enamored of an ass.

My last pal for now, though there are hundreds more, is about to make an appearance. A lovely white climbing rose makes an appearance for a few weeks, rain permitting. Growing within it is a honeysuckle and a rowan, which I think is forming the basis for the whole structure, and I keep it trim to the top of the hedge.

When the flowers appear you cannot but want to sit beside it watching the bumblebees buzz heavily around. And a hot day, when the nectar is more fermented than normal, they sit lazily on the flowers and you can stroke them.

You know, regardless of its size, the garden is about the best friend we humans have. Perhaps that’s why all of the creation stories set our origins in one.

Mr Digwell gardening cartoon logo

Paul Peacock studied botany at Leeds University, has been the editor of Home Farmer magazine, and now hosts the City Cottage online magazine. An experienced gardener himself, his expertise lies in the world of the edible garden. If it clucks, quacks or buzzes, Paul is keenly interested.

He is perhaps best known as Mr Digwell, the cartoon gardener featured in The Daily Mirror since the 1950s. As Mr Digwell he has just published his book, A Year in The Garden. You can also see more about him on our Mr Digwell information page.

See all of Mr Digwell’s posts.

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