The RHS just carried out a survey which found that 24 per cent of adults "don't buy" plants. I'm startled: a full three-quarters of grown-ups really go to a garden centre and purchase plants? I'm used to thinking of gardening as a niche interest, like road cycling. And actually everyone knows who Bradley Wiggins is, and they also like to buy camellias?
Of course, Britain's biggest gardening organisation didn't commission its research just to cause me to get a little puzzled wrinkle. It was interested in the shift in the times of year we go plant shopping. Thirty years ago we'd have likely obeyed newspaper columnists' solemn advice for autumn planting. Percy Thrower would have told us the soil is warmer in September and it rains more, so plants establish themselves firmly. New roots get settled well before the cold comes, without the added pressure of summer flowering. Plus, Percy would have added, plants are cheaper when they're not in flower. And cheapest of all are bare-root plants, sold without the cost of pots or soil, in a dormant state that lasts for most of the winter. In addition, there's a much wider choice of bare-root roses, for example, than you'd ever get in containers.
Yet, most of us still spend a huge proportion of our plant budgets in spring, just before the first few Bank Holidays. "I think it's a reflection of today's culture wanting immediate results," comments RHS director general Sue Biggs. And it's true: every year you'll see people at garden centres with huge Easter trolleys full of a garden's worth of instant results.
But perhaps we could be persuaded to go back to a more 1950s way of doing things, economically planning ahead in autumn, rather than swinging out the credit cards on 1 March. Sue Biggs and her team are certainly going to have a go: Jim Gardiner, the RHS's director of horticulture, will be leading free October events in Devon, Yorkshire and Essex pointing out ways to use autumn planting to your advantage.
His big selling point will be that autumn planting allows you to purchase slightly smaller plants than you'd go for next spring, with the whole winter to catch up. This is a particular bargain when it comes to hedging and structural plants. If you've been aching all year for a dramatic box pyramid, but could never justify the cost, think about purchasing small plants now for careful winter nurture and clipping to shape in spring. See hedgesdirect.co.uk for suggestions.
And if being economical is not in your nature, there's an artier reason to tackle garden gaps in autumn: you can see what needs attention. Post-summer lacunae can be filled now with small plants, ready to get big for next year. Peonies and lavenders planted now will reward you with a better June, and biennials such as angelica and verbascum put in the soil now may even flower a year early.
The RHS is running events across its gardens over the next three months under the Autumn Planting for Year Round Colour banner. See rhs.org.uk for details
Three favourites for an autumn patch-up
Fennel ‘Giant Bronze’
Plant now for gorgeous ferny chestnut-coloured leaves in spring, then elegant flowering stems for much of the summer.
Rose ‘Aimée Vibert’
A classic rambling white rose dating from 1828, only available these days to order as a bare-rooted plant.
£13.95, from Peter Beales at classicroses.co.uk
Family Pear tree
Three different kinds of fruit - Williams, Comice and Conference - on one pretty tree, on dwarf rootstock to keep it a sensible size for a town garden.
£39.99, bare-rooted, thompson-morgan.comReuse content