Putting the garden to bed

Gardening: Plants have stopped growing, even the weeds are on a go-slow, but now you must spring into action. In the final part of the reluctant gardener series Mary Keen prepares for winter... and next spring
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The Independent Culture
At this time of the year, reluctant gardeners wonder if they can get away with one more cut of the lawn and no weeding until next year. Apart from the chore of leaves, work outside seems to be more or less over until Easter 1997. Professionals regard what they call the "back end" as the busiest time of all. The holidays are over and school has begun again. In the low-light of October days, gardening is more agreeable than at any other time. The pressure is off, and everything you do makes the place look better. As growth slows down so do the weeds, but the soil can still be warm enough to sow a few flowers and vegetables for next year: the cheapest way of restocking.

TENDER PLANTS

Bedding plants that you bought to fill the garden at the end of May, can be kept for another year if you act at once. Cuttings of pelargoniums, geraniums, penstemons, verbenas, salvias, diascias and all the marguerite tribe will survive the winter on a sunny window sill and make plants to put out next year for the cost of a bag of compost and a few pots.

The principle for all the plants above is the same. Choose side shoots about three to four inches long, preferably without a flower bud at the top, though this may be hard to find. You can pull off or cut the shoots, the second is safer. Trim the leaves from the bottom half of the cutting and tip and top. Some people use hormone rooting powder (I don't) but it needs to be fresh to work. Then mix a bag of vermiculite of perlite with the all-purpose compost of your choice and put this into three- to four-inch-deep pots. Near the side of the pot make a hole for the cutting with a pencil or thin stick and drop the shoot in and firm the soil against it. Slightly less than half its length is usually submerged.

While the cuttings are rooting, they should be kept in the shade and need minimal water: they will rot if you give them too much. If it is hot they might need a top-up after a week. If it is very hot, put the pot in a plastic bag and fasten it over the top or use half a clear plastic bottle to make a mini propagator. Covering cuttings in cool damp weather is a mistake and most plants with fleshy stems, like pelargoniums, are better left uncovered. Once they have rooted, which will probably be in about 10 days to three weeks, they can be moved to a sunny place.

If they are to spend the winter on a window sill, turn the pot and pinch the shoots regularly to keep the growth even. In about February the little plants can be moved into separate pots and in March you can start to feed them. Keep pinching the plants to make them bushy. If whitefly are a problem you can buy labels impregnated with deterrent to put in the pots, or you can rely on eco-friendly yellow sticky-paper traps.

SEEDS

If keeping plants on window sills sounds like hard work there are other ways of ensuring flowers next year at minimum expense. In the south of England, seeds of hardy annuals like love-in-a-mist, cornflowers and shirley poppies can be sown in the garden to provide patches of colour next summer. Cornflowers, if they are regularly deadheaded, will flower for months on end. Look for varieties in separate colours, rather than mixed packets, and unless you want dwarf plants, choose tall forms for impact.

If you grow dahlias or lobelias there are two possible courses of action. You can leave the tubers in the ground and cover them with a few layers of fleece weighed down with stones and soil to give them the extra protection they will need - this is the easiest option. Or you can lift the tubers. These need to be dried, wrapped in newspaper and then stored in a box in a frost-free dry place for the winter. Next spring they can be grown in pots until they are ready to put out. Dahlias dealt with in the second, more complicated fashion, will be earlier into flower than those left in the ground, and you will also get more plants from this course of action.

NEW PLANTS

If you want to plant more shrubs or perennials in the garden, it is cheaper to order them now from a nursery that grows them in the open ground, rather than buy plants in pots next spring from the garden centre. Bare-root plants are lifted from mid-October until mid- March and sent out by post during the dormant season. The RHS Plant Finder (Morland Publishing Company, pounds 12.99) lists the names of all the plants in commercial cultivation and the nurseries that grow them and is the best ally for mail-order gardeners. Scotts Nurseries of Merriott, Somerset (01460 72306) has a large general list and its catalogues are free.

BULBS

All bulbs are cheaper from the wholesale mail-order firms like Peter Hyssen (Railway Road, Urmston, Manchester, M41 OWX, tel 0161 748 6666), and J Parker Dutch Bulbs (452 Chester Road, Old Trafford, Manchester, M16 9HL, tel 0161 872 1700), You can expect to pay about pounds 11 per 100 for popular varieties of narcissi and a little less for the same number of tulips. It is technically too late to plant narcissi after the end of September, but if you can find them locally and put them in soon, they should perform next spring. If planting is delayed, they will not die but they may take until 1998 before they reach their full potential.

In small gardens the semi-wild varieties, which are not as brassy as the big "King Alfred" variety, are what I would always choose. The cyclamineus hybrids - "February Gold", "Tete-a-tete" - or the scented "Jonquil Pipit" look good everywhere.

Tulips are better planted late and can even wait until December. Crocus, iris and alliums come somewhere between the demandingly early daffodils and the easy going tulips. There would be time for all these. The single early tulips will be out in April, and some of them are scented. "General de Wet" a soft orange, and "Bellona", a clear yellow, are both lovely, but if you like pink, then "China Pink" in early May has pointed petals and a lovely shape. These happen to be dependable favourites of my own, but the choice is enormous. As a rough rule all bulbs should be planted at about three times the depth of the bulb.

VEGETABLES

If the garden seems bare in winter and you are planning to grow your own bedding next year, use the ground for growing a few early lettuces. "Winter Density" and "Tom Thumb" will both survive the cold months. Or you could buy plants of these and spring cabbages to put in the gaps until it is safe to put the geraniums out.

PRUNING, MULCHING AND LAWNS

There are various tasks which can be done between now and the spring so that when the first warm day comes you can enjoy the garden instead of feeling overwhelmed by what needs to be done. Leaves need to be dealt with as they fall, but think of them as a free source of food for the flowers beds and tell yourself that clearing them is harvesting, not housework. Bagged up with a few lawn mowings and kept damp they will rot down to give you leaf mould by the end of next summer.

Cutting down plants that have finished flowering can be done now, but it is less work if you leave this until the spring. By that time, the stems will be airy skeletons instead of unwieldy bundles. and birds enjoy the seed-heads of plants left standing all winter.

Mulching the flower beds while the ground is still warm and not too dry can give you a head start next year. Shrubs, trees and all the greedy plants, such as roses, peonies and delphiniums, will be much happier with a blanket of compost or manure if you can get it tucked round their roots.

Roses can be gently pruned and tied in now so that the wind does not damage them in the winter, but climbing roses are probably easier to manage when the leaves have fallen and you can see the shape of the stems. Aim to space these out on the wall and encourage each shoot into a downward curve. Roses flower better this way, because they produce side shoots from the whole branch rather than just at the tip.

Lawn-care is not the best use of reluctant gardeners' time but, if the grass was very unsatisfactory this summer and you really want it to look better next year, try giving it some autumn fertiliser after some work on the most compacted areas. These need to be stabbed with a fork to let the air in. Put the fork in as deeply as you can and move it gently back and forwards. The holes it leaves can be filled with sand or a light compost which will improve the drainage. Ideally you do this -at intervals of a couple of feet - all over the lawn. It is possible to hire a spiker but family lawns can be transformed by local stabbing in the worst patches followed by a boost of fertiliser.

Where there is no grass at all, this is the moment to reseed. Keep it watered if no rain falls and it should sprout within 10 days. Forget about removing moss, because unless you improve the drainage (which spiking will do in time) it will always return, however hard you rake the thatch or poison it with proprietary moss killers. Emerald swards are for perfectionists, the rest of us use grass for games and lying about.

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