When the dahlias, salvias and chrysanthemums are giving the display of the year, grasses softly interlacing in-between shrubs while leaves begin to turn a little - it’s easy to see why September is my favourite month. I love the warm days and vibrant colours. By the autumn equinox, plants know that the nights are longer than the days and pump out flowers in triple quick time to ensure the future succession. It is bitter sweet that the best really does come last. In my flower growing classes, I talk about how one needs to think in 4D across the year; whilst one plant is flowering, another is resting beneath the ground. Meaning that there never really is a start to the gardening year. But if there is a month to begin, or crown the ‘new horticultural year’ I believe September to be it. Now is a great the time to sow annuals, begin sprouting ranunculus and anemones, plant narcissus and other spring bulbs (wait until Nov for tulips). Lift and split spring flowering perennials. Essentially get ready for the Spring. And now the soil is damper, you can think about how to improve your soil for great plant health and display next year. With the heat and drought of this summer, it won’t have escaped any of us that gardening will look very different in the future. Good soil health - particularly substrate that will absorb and hold on to water far better - is the first place we should be looking to start. My top tips begin with reducing how much you move the soil. Use a hoe and only dig when you need to lift or plant something. Leave roots in the soil, reducing evaporation and any disturbance of the micro bacterial activity. Add a centimetre or so of mulch each year to your beds. Use your own homemade compost (or order from Field Compost or Madingley Mulch. Ask them to advise you on the product depending on your soil type and use). New beds can start with cardboard over weeds and pile on about 5” of compost or organic matter. It really works. Check out Charles Dowding for more on this. Cover the soil at all times. From spring to autumn, I sow quick growing radish, salad leaves, nasturtiums and calendula between flower crops, with squash and pumpkins over compost heaps and empty patches. Then later in the year, sow green manures to bind the soil and continue feeding the microbiology over the winter. Sometimes I might lay spent crops on the soil too. Growing different species of plants in the same space and allowing plants to self sow here has been great for reducing pests and diseases. This is polyculture, creating natural biodiversity and balance. Sure, it does take me longer to cut flowers efficiently but I know my soil health and plants are much healthier for it. And finally, the watering. More water butts, anything that I can store water in, dropping a watering can in for pots and seedlings. In cropping beds and permanent borders, I am installing drip tape everywhere. I like to water as little as possible , and when I do, I water by hand. But this summer, that wasn’t enough. Often the quick draining sandy soil dried out so much in-between. Where we do have soaker hoses and drip tape, the plants have done so much better with far less water. Soaker hoses give more targeted efficient irrigating since the hose with tiny holes realise water slowly which means the soil gently absorbs the water and holds on to it. This is best if you can set up a timer and run hoses for a few hours late in the evening as and when it’s required. You can really take any one of these ideas this September and begin to apply in your gardens. I guarantee they will be better for it and we can look forward to future Septembers of still vibrant gardens whatever the weather.
Originally published in Cambridge Edition September 2022