Autumn Tidy Up

A leaf on a lawn covered by frost
A leaf on a lawn covered by frost

With the arrival of dark mornings thoughts turn to tidying the garden up for winter. The first frosts will soon finish off the annuals and tender perennials, while the hardy perennials die back for the winter and the deciduous trees and shrubs will take on their autumn colours before dropping their leaves.

Any tiding up will invariably create a collection of rubbish and gardening is no different. It’s often said “one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure” so what treasure can we find before glibly throwing everything in a skip. Not everything is going to be re-usable; if you come upon what might be asbestos sheets, then only option is to contact your local authority for some specialist advice. That aside in most cases the limiting factor is your imagination.

Once you get rid of the bits of broken glass and rusty metal, which only the most artistic gardeners will be able to find a use for, you are left stones, rubble, lumps of wood, leaves, weeds and  other bits of greenery, and soil. As a rule its best to keep any topsoil you find surplus to you immediate needs. Small amounts of topsoil often come in handy for filling stump holes and the like but, due to its weight small quantities are hard to come by and expensive. Even if you have nowhere to store it, you can lose it by spreading on to the borders. If you think this is going to cause problems consider 50 kg of topsoil (the same weight as 2 bags of cement) will cover a patch 1.5 m by 1.5 m with a layer only 10 mm thick.

Shrubs in Autumn
Shrubs in Autumn

 

The green material will make good compost so long as care is taken when making it, and you have a little space for a compost heap/bin. Any woody material, like rose prunings, are best off shredded if they are to breakdown in a reasonable time. If you do not have the space, or time, our local authority will have a green waste composting service which will do the work for you and provide a quality controlled produce you can buy back from them when you need it.

It you have a lot of trees and shrubs you a likely to find, come autumn, you have a lot of dead leaves in the garden and these make an excellent soil improver in the form of leaf mould. Its worth considering that evergreen plants also shed lots of  leaves through the year, just take a walk through a conifer wood one day! Leaves tend to rot down more slowly that most of the green waste that goes into compost, so it’s often better to separate the leaves out. The leaves can be heaped up into a simple container made of course wire netting supported by posts or canes, just consider how you will get the leaf mould out again. As the leaves of different plants will rot down at different rates is best if the tougher leaves are shredded to help them brake down, and some people recommend adding some grass cutting to help the process along. The heap should not be allowed to dry and will need turning at least once. After a year you will have a very useful soil improver but ideally the heap should be left for two years.

Phosphorus (P)

This is the second most important plant nutrient after nitrogen and important in its take up. Phosphorus is an important element in many of the complex compounds in plants which they need. For example it is one of only five different elements in DNA, the others being oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon. Even with an adequate supply of nitrogen, plants cannot take up enough nitrogen if there is insufficient phosphorus. A lot of the phosphorus in soils is in an insoluble form and plants can only take up nutrients if they are dissolved in water, in addition there is a tendency for phosphorus which is added to the soil to be converted to an insoluble form in the soil. Phosphorus is more likely to be in short supply in acidic soils.

Potassium (K)

This has a range of vital roles in plants, thought the exact nature and extent of them is still not well understood. It is generally more likely to be in short supply in soils with little clay in them such as peat and sandy soils.

Nitrogen (N)

One of the main plant nutrients and used by plants to make all proteins, and therefore as well enzymes, chlorophyll and many other essential parts of plants. The amount of nitrogen available to a plant is often the factor which limits it rate of growth and its behaviour within the soil is a very complex one with the amount available to the plant changing constantly. Like all plant nutrients; nitrogen has to be in a suitable form for the plants to take up, as an element it is a gas making up approximately 80% of the air we breathe but in that form is of no use to plants. The important exception to this last point is the legume crops which have evolved a way around this.

Nutrients

These are chemicals plants use to grow and are often divided into macronutrients and trace elements. These terms are in themselves are of limited use as if the plant needs the chemical to grow, in however small a quality, its absence is going to cause problems. In practice the main ones are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium(K), Calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg) and sulphur (S). Of these the most important are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and they are the NPK referred to on packets of fertilizer.

Trace elements

This is rather a catch all term for a very large group of chemical elements which plants need, but in very small amounts. It is very rare that adequate amounts of them are not naturally present in the soil.

Taking over an established garden – where to begin

Most people when they buy a new house find they are taking over an existing garden and this will present certain challenges; you have after all bought their house not their tastes. It is therefore inevitable not everything in the garden you are going to like and/or want. It is reasonable to assume on first moving in that the garden will not be your most pressing concern, so we need to start by prioritising. The first thing to consider is what is the time of year, mid-winter little is happening in the garden but in the height of summer any lawn will beg rowing fast so you are going to need to cut it once a week and if there is a pond it needs to be kept topped up and any filter maintained. The rest of the garden should survive alright with the exception of any plants in a greenhouse. If its summer and you’re pushed for time the easiest thing to do is to take them out of the greenhouse, up them with any other plants in pots and keep them watered.

The next stage is to have a really good look around your new garden; you should have plenty of opportunities to do this while escaping the paint fumes. What do you like, dislike or simply don’t understand. Look where gets the sun and when, are you over looked and to what extent; most gardens will be overlooked by some bedroom windows but in practice people spend little time looking out of their bedroom windows – so they are not as much of a problem  as a kitchen  or sitting room window. While you’re at it consider which plants you like and how much space large plants are occupying, but don’t be too quick to condemn; that large bush could be there to hide a hidden eyesore.

One of the problems with plants is that you are not really aware of them growing; they kind of do it sneakily behind you back, so you just don’t notice how big they are getting. This is where the new home owner’s fresh pair of eyes comes as a big advantage. Have a good dig, metaphorically speaking, in the back of borders; you could be surprised what you find. If nothing else you may well find a lot of underused space. While you’re at it take a good look at the trees in the garden because if these need attention now is the time to do it.

Are the trees appropriate for the garden? Are they going to, or have they got, too big for the garden? If you have large mature trees in the garden do they need a professional to look them over to check they are safe? If the trees need any major work it will both create a lot of upheaval and dramatically change the garden so its best to get it done as seen as is practical. Beware there are many very good professional arborculturalist (tree surgeons) but sadly there are also a lot of butchers out there. So check they have a proper formal training, carry appropriate insurance, get more than one written quotation and remember if a price sounds too cheap, and tree work isn’t, be suspicious!

One common problem is people buy Christmas trees with the roots on and then come the New Year can’t bring them to throw away a living tree they’ve spent the holidays keeping alive. Then comes the problem of what to do with it, so it gets planted in a corner of the garden. This all sounds nice and remarkably quiet a few of these Christmas leftovers survive, looking quiet nice tucked in the border. The problem is the type trees sold as Christmas trees are the type that grow quickly into big trees, which makes sense if you’re trying to produce trees that are sellable at the best price. You can probably see where this is going, they sit quietly at the back of the border growing! These are not a good choice for a domestic garden. People get attached to trees. So you soon end up with what is in effect a large and growing arboreal pet in the garden. I’m afraid the only realistic solution is to remove it before it gets any more of a problem, or more expensive to remove.

Alkaline

This is a water based solution which has a Ph above 7. Most alkaline soils (also called basic soils) lie in the range 7 to 9.