Autumn chorus

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
November 2023

Steffie Shields recommends seasonal garden chores amid a symphony of colour.

As days shorten make sure, before winter really sets in, a) to spend time out of doors in the light and b) to visit a nearby public park or garden open to the community.

Good news – Easton Walled Gardens has extended its Wednesday to Sunday opening to include November, and until 22nd December, with admission half-price!

Going for a stroll in invigorating fresh air will clear that technological overload away. Open your eyes to the marvellous, ever-changing beauty of natural surroundings and good garden design.

Looking back at this year’s strange weather patterns with numerous overcast days, we have missed out on our normal sunshine quota, despite September’s burst of Indian summer temperatures. 2023 has been splendid for roses though. Mine have been reaching for the sky!

Did you notice phenomenal growth in countryside hedgerow and garden? Am I thankful my husband ordered an extra green bin from the council! Even so, our shrubs produced unprecedented mounds of foliage necessitating several extra trips to the local recycling tip.

A mature, purple-leafed smoke bush, Cotinus ‘Grace’, required chopping back more than once after great spurts of growth kept blocking the way to the compost bin. Attracted by its prestigious RHS Award of Garden Merit, I failed to take note of just how tall and wide it might grow! I wonder, will this affect its seasonal fancy dress as temperatures tumble, that incendiary change of leaf colour?

Planting trees and shrubs
Remember, while wielding shears, hedge-trimmers, loppers, or secateurs to restore a certain amount of order, November is traditionally the best time to plant trees and shrubs. However, before introducing new specimens, it is worth checking your existing mix of shrub and trees. One-to-two year-old shrubs might need moving if they are in the wrong place. Those with a pronounced lean in one direction are simply growing towards the light that they crave, a sure sign that they are being cramped by their neighbours.

Unfortunately, I situated my choice dogwood, Cornus ‘Variegata’, too close to both a nearby mock-orange and an overhanging wild cherry tree. The so-called wedding cake tree, thanks to its tiered habit, obviously needed more room to spread out than I realised. One entire branch has failed.

Now, too old to re-position, it stands accusingly like a one-armed ‘divorce tree’. I intend cutting back its Philadelphus neighbour and lopping a couple of those cherry boughs to encourage new growth, hoping to make amends.

Prune at least a third of any deciduous shrub that has outgrown its space. Do this by coppicing, that is chopping away, or sawing through, several older, thick branches at ground level. Also take out those branches crossing over others. Stand back every now and then to assess the shape. Philadelphus, hazel and old shrub roses respond well to this taming treatment during dormant winter months of little growth.

It is a good idea, in many instances, to aim for a V form rather than an O, in other words a vase-shape rather than a blob! At the same time, it is worth taking hard-wood cuttings. Cornus, euonymus and willow are relatively easy to strike directly in soil.

Filling a void
Talking of space, ponder volume and void, a stimulating task. How much volume do you prefer a shrub to have? Think about what shape suits its growth habit. Does it need to sit alone in space or fill a void?

Then again, not every void should be filled – a too-crowded, cluttered garden is not so pleasing to the eye. Even slight alterations can improve the view and set the scene for autumnal theatre.

While you assess what needs cutting back, don’t forget to look up. Lop off any stray, low-hanging branches. Make sure you lift the canopy of overhead trees here and there to let in light and allow more healthy breathing space for understorey plants and shrubs below to flourish. Of course those curving, berried holly twigs dangling down can be left until Christmas Eve approaches!

I admit to not having fed my miniature lilac which appears to be dying. Perhaps it has simply reached its normal lifespan. All I know is last autumn, I cut back its next door neighbour, a vigorous tree peony. This stimulated fantastic, new foliage growth. As its huge, divided leaves fanned out, it overshadowed the poor lilac, probably sucking up and monopolising moisture. So be warned, cutting back does encourage strong new growth.

Harvesting seeds
Maybe you have been harvesting your own seeds. Pot them up in fresh compost and stand in a sheltered spot, or better still cold frame, to either plant out or pass on as a gift in 2024. As its red stalked foliage fades and changes colour, the tree peony offers up bold, shiny black seeds in chubby pods that are by now desiccated. Grab hold of that last seed before it drops. Bury it straight away, where space is plentiful remember, and mark the spot with a small stake. With luck, this two-minute job will bring about a young specimen next spring. Be patient, it will come to flower in about three years.

On those occasional clement days, seize any opportunity to clear up fallen leaves and prepare the way for snowdrops. Remember it is worth putting a grease band around the trunks of your fruit trees to stop winter moth damage. There is still time to plant tulips and do not forget to put food out to encourage winter birdlife.

Now is a good time to remove anything that is dead. Move those plants that are in the wrong place, especially before purchasing that next prize tree or coveted shrub.

Much as I crave a Scots pine, often admiring the magnificent gate guardian to Rauceby Hall, we do not have the space! It is time to invest in a couple of “new to me” slow-growing, dwarf conifers to provide evergreen contrast and form without pruning!

Technicolour dream coat
Kicking off another autumn show, our silver birch tree is on view from our kitchen sink. Its trailing branches are draped, not with silver but, ironically, with a rich shower of pure gold. Its leaves flutter down silently as if pennies from heaven. So do take the children somewhere new, or go with a friend to explore Lincoln Arboretum, Normanby Park, or Burghley.

November’s guaranteed crescendo is far more spectacular than any fanciful AI-generated images, let alone expensive fireworks. Nature’s technicolour “dream coat”, an amazing blend of bronze, gold and russet interspersed with red-berried fruits and orange hips, is sure to bring joy and uplift.

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Calling all UK young artists!Doddington Young Sculptor Exhibition Doddington Hall and Gardens, Lincolnshire invites submissions from UK-based sculptors and 3D artists, aged under 30, for an exciting new open exhibition to be held this summer. Doddington is looking for pieces to be exhibited in the historic working Kitchen Garden, which complement the Garden and its surroundings. The Doddington Young Sculptor Exhibition will run alongside the main bi-annual Sculpture at Doddington exhibition and is an opportunity to exhibit alongside some of the finest contemporary sculptors selected from across the country and further afield. Prizes: 1st prize – £750, 2nd prize – £250Submission deadline: Sunday April 21st 2024Further details about eligibility, terms and conditions can be found at: apply, please email your submission as a PDF document to ... See MoreSee Less