The November garden is in slow retreat with plants creating a spiders playground whilst Chrysanthemums are hitting their stride like fireworks exploding with colour. These flowers are some of my current favourites for their scent, hardy attitude and tonal qualities. As the garden year crosses over between the last performances of some and a curtain call from roses, the bulk of the month is in preparing for the next.
In the borders, I leave the jumble of leaves and stems, the ‘morning after the night before’ where the summer’s flowers shrink towards the earth. Don’t cut these back; the sunrise is a welcome breakfast treat, glistening behind grasses and perennials such as eupatoriums, asters and echinaceas, glistening, creating long shadows. If you don’t love a decaying border, try to. The material will protect the crowns of the plants from wet winter weather, providing food and home for wildlife. You’ll know when it’s the right time to cut back, plants will tell you with green growth in the spring.
Usually the task of the month is to lift all our dahlias but I am leaving them in this autumn. Instead, I will cut the stems down and cover with a bucket of compost. The stem of a dahlia is like a straw - great in the summer, but in freezing weather will cause the dahlia tuber to swell with frozen water then rot as it defrosts. The aim of the game is to make sure they don’t sit in the wet. I will lift the plants next autumn instead: when I expect the tubers will be enormous.
There is still plenty of time to plant bulbs for the spring but only now can you plant tulips. These need a couple of frosts first and a cool soil. I admit that my love affair for tulips has waned. Thinking sustainably as a flower farmer, tulips take years to mature and flower; and they do so on a single stem which means that when I cut, there is no leaf to feed the bulb for future flowers. We were proud that we grew these bulbs as annuals and threw them to the compost heap. Now I am uncomfortable with how much resources and growing needs to happen for that one cut flower.
Instead I am moving towards multi stemmed varieties or simply perrenializing in the long border for my delight rather than grow as a crop. Instead, my adoration for the narcissus sees no bounds as yet. They return year after year, scented with so many varieties, shapes, sizes and colours to celebrate.
If you are wondering where you might have room for these or indeed any spring bulb, look beyond the border or pots; consider the lawn. A spring meadow is the easiest of all meadows to create, saves you some effort early in the year and is enchanting. Give the lawn it’s last cut this month and simply throw bulbs at the grass and plant them where they land or lift squares of turf, plant and lay back the grass like a duvet over them. Naturalising looks best when only one or two varieties flower at the same time - starting with snowdrops, then crocus, scilla and ending with poet’s narcissus. Try to plant in generous drifts and leave space for a meandering mown path through. Then enjoy the display as it rises between January and the grass flowering with the narcissus in May. Then until you can no longer bear the mess, mow the grass down lower and lower as the summer goes on.
Time to rest and recuperate like a bulb, to emerge next year, bright and fantastic!
Originally published in Cambridge Edition November 2022