It might not come as much of a surprise to those that know me, that I don’t much hang about to ‘smell the roses’. Rather I am thinking and doing what I can be doing to gently nudge the garden along. So November is one of the loveliest months for me in the gardens. Harvesting was long ago so the abundance of the summer is behind us and of course now there is little about, I appreciate the flowers and gardens much more. The sowing or pricking out from the early autumn is all done and flowering is slowing down. Now there are a few chrysanthemums, asters and the odd rose still blooming. There is far less day to work and be outside but November is often mild save for those first frosts. With plant growth retreating, I can see what is going on in the borders and beds to tease out the ground elder or bindweed roots, lifting spring flowering perennials to divide and take root cuttings from poppies and Anchusa.
It’s only a few weeks but these seem like borrowed time, the garden suspended just before the winter sets in and there is much less that can be done. The air smells of wood smoke, the leaves are crisp and time in the garden feels precious.
For flower growers like me, the main event is the first big frost. Or maybe the second, depending on its efficacy to blacken the dahlias and call time on the flowers. Yes, it’s the fascinating talk of the month. By now dahlia flowers are too soft and full of water to cut even if it hasn’t frosted but when you wake up that first time to a black shrunken mess, it’s quite the shock. When the leaves are killed off, the tuber is no longer fed, signalling it to create the buds or eyes that are the growth points for next year’s stems. It is important in reducing the possibility of storing virus’ also and simply allowing the plant to naturally shut down for the winter.
With this in mind, we have always lifted all our dahlias which is a hugely heavy but enjoyably rigorous group task for us and we make it a party day. The plants are cut down, dug up and turned over to drain excess moisture out before storing. However this year, we missed a lot of plants, I think we simply left a few tubers in the ground and they got through the winter and sprouted beautifully. So this year I am going to experiment and leave two long beds in and see how they fare compared to those that we lift and divide this month and all the other associated tasks before they are planted again late next May. The ones being left will simply be cut right down and we’ll generously spread compost over the beds and importantly, thickly over the flower stems so no water slips down rotting the tuber or exposing it to sub zero temperatures.
Of course all the other dahlias will be lifted and stored. And enjoying the future gardens so much, I will also order lots more cuttings and tubers. Just in case, and to satisfy my magpie needs for new sparkly varieties.
The frost dates are equally important to Tulip planting too. These bulbs can be susceptible to viral infections so the cold hopefully kills these off and promotes strong growth. Tulips like rich well drained soil like dahlias, so this year I will plant them in and around the dahlias left in the ground and get two crops from the soil preparation.
The pressure of the summer months has certainly lessened but next year’s flowers need me enough to get out in the gardens now and enjoy this mild spell at the end of autumn.
This was first published in Cambridge Edition Magazine November 2021.