The November Garden 2023
My RHS ‘Gardening Through the Year ‘ book tells me that November can be a damp, raw month which, I admit, is not a great way to begin this month’s blog. However, even in November although flowers may be scarce there are still the last days of this year’s autumn leaves, many colourful fruits, and evergreen foliage as well as decorative stems and barks to bring interest to the garden even on the dullest of days.
Looking back through previous November blogs I see that in 2020 I was concentrating on autumn leaf colour in our own garden in West Wales- I can’t think why!, which included trees such as various Cherries (Prunus), the Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), Cornus kousa, one of the flowering Dogwoods, Field Maple (Acer campestre), the Paper Bark maple (Acer griseum) and the Silver Birch (Betula pendula). In terms of shrubs I also mentioned the purple-leaved Smoke Bush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’, Winter Jasmine (Jasminium nudiflorum) and Deutzia. There was even some flower colour to be seen, as there is again as I write this year, from several Asters (now Symphiotrichon), the Pheasant Berry (Leycestaria formosa), Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’, fading colours of the Hydrangeas, several hardy Geraniums and in the gravel bed Persicaria affinis, Parahebe and Erigeron.
This is our ‘waterfall’ Acer at the beginning and end of October. It was a present from members of my department when I was still teaching for my 50th birthday. As such it is well over 20 years old and has spent its life in a series of pots, had a spell in the ground and is now in its final home of a brick-edged planter in the corner of the patio.
In a similar vein here is our Cherry tree, Prunus ‘The Bride’ grafted onto a Prunus serrula trunk (Tibetan Cherry) at the end of September and again at the end of October.
The striking flowers and fruits of the Pheasant Berry, Leycesteria formosa in late October.
The rest of the blog looked at plants which can provide interest in terms of flowers, fruits, stems and bark into the winter months to come and included one tree, several shrubs, some climbers and a special mention of evergreen plants which bring great value to the garden all year round but which are particularly good in the winter. There is also a section where I discuss the relative merits of the ‘dig’ and ‘no dig’ systems. I won’t go into the detail again here but suffice it to say that I am firmly into the ‘no dig’ camp! Finally from the 2020 blog I would just remind you of the great benefits to be gained from collecting and storing the autumn leaves once they have fallen on lawns, paths, low-growing plants and into ponds where they are not at all welcome. Small amounts can simply be added to the compost heap or bin but larger quantities are better stored either in ‘chicken wire’ containers or in black, bin bags with a few holes in the bottom to allow excess water to escape and air to enter. Over a year or two the leaves will break down into valuable leaf mould which your plants will really appreciate. It can be used in the mix for home-made potting compost, as a mulch around plants much as it is ‘in the wild’ or added to your own compost and used as a soil conditioner. All this and for free- what’s not to like? In November 2021 the blog came from the garden at Aberglasney as part of my series of visits over the twelve months from June 2021 to May 2022. Late autumn is a real time of transition in the gardens there with the removal of the summer displays, the planting of spring bulbs and bedding and the beginning of the mammoth task of laying down vast quantities of wonderful compost which the gardens generate over the growing season.
A few photos from this year’s mid-October visit to Aberglasney.
Finally in the 2022 November blog I picked out some ‘plants of the month’ which included certain Viburnums, Skimmia, Hamamelis, Callicarpa, Euonymous and Cercis. All these blogs are still available on the Old Railway Line’s website under ‘News and Blogs’, ‘show tags’ and Monthly Garden Guides’.
For this year’s November blog I am going to concentrate on a topic which many gardeners think about at quieter times of the year and that is ‘what to do with the more difficult spots in the garden’. This is something I actually looked at in the blog for December 2020 and there are lots of suggestions in that for plants which will do well in areas such as hot, dry and sunny; poorly drained; damp shade; dry shade and exposed, windy areas. This can also be found on the web site but under the tag ‘Gardening Tips’ and the title ‘Plants for Difficult Areas’. I was reminded of this recently when I came across an article in Teresa’s ‘Country Living’ magazine which I have to say contains several interesting and useful gardening articles every month. This particular article in the November 2023 issue entitled ‘Tough Plants for Tough Places’ by Sharon Amos is an extract from her book of the same title published by Pimpernel Press. In it she picked out some plants to make the best of difficult sites and included some useful tips on how to let plants tell gardeners what conditions they like. For areas in full sun the key is to look for plants with grey or silvery leaves which reflect light in order to protect themselves, or which have hairs on the leaves which create some shade and help reduce water loss. Another good guide is to consider where the plants originally come from, for example plants from Mediterranean areas or prairie regions have evolved to cope with hot, often dry summers. Her four suggestions for these conditions are Stachys byzantina (Lamb’s Ears) from sunny Turkey, Spurge (Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii) with its acid, yellow-green bracts, the compact shrub Potentilla fruiticosa and Echinacea, the Coneflower, a true prairie plant. For even drier situations there are some real drought-resistant specialists which, of course, we may all need to use more of as our climate changes. Many of these have small, narrow leaves to reduce water loss or have fleshy leaves which can store water. Sharon’s four suggestions are the Globe Thistle (Echinops ritro) with its spiky, steel blue, rounded flower heads, the Ice Plant (Sedum spectabile) with its fleshy leaves and flat flower heads, the Common Houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum) with its rosettes of thick, fleshy leaves and ‘good old’ Aubretia deltoidea with its purple flowers tumbling over dry stone walls or across gravelly patches. Most of our gardens have areas of the third ‘problem’- shade- whether it be under trees and shrubs or on the shady sides of buildings, walls, fences and hedges. I for one actually welcome such areas as they allow me to grow and enjoy a different but still attractive group of plants. One option is to go down the ‘woodland’ route by using plants that grow and flower early in the growing season such as spring flowering bulbs before the tree canopy develops fully. Another option is to make use of shrubs which can not only survive but also thrive in lower levels of light, many of which have shiny, evergreen leaves which help to reflect light onto adjacent leaves, for example Holly (Ilex). Sharon’s four suggestions are Viburnum tinus with its shiny leaves, clusters of pink buds and then small flowers in winter and spring followed by blue-black fruits. At ground level Anemone nemerosa, the Wood Anemone, grows beautifully beneath trees and shrubs as do both Cyclamen hederifolium and C. coum. Her fourth choice is Barrenwort or Bishop’s Hat, (Epimedium), with its evergreen leaves and sprays pf colourful spring flowers. This is a really tough plant and is well worth trying even in the deepest shade. Finally we come to the problem areas due to exposure to strong winds. Here leaves that are small or feathery and finely divided are most likely to avoid wind damage, as are plants which are low-growing and/or compact and rounded in shape. The four suggestions for wind resistant ‘heroes’ are Hebe albicans with its small, grey-green leaves and white flowers in spring and summer, the perhaps surprisingly hardy Red Hot Poker, Kniphofia caulescens, with its tough, strap-like grey-green leaves topped with spectacular flower stems in late summer, the evergreen shrub Elaeagnus pungens which is often seen thriving in coastal locations with its gold-splashed leaves and tiny, concealed but very fragrant autumn flowers and Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) with its small leaves and densely branching habit making it ideal for a hedge or larger windbreak. The very fact that in windy areas such as ours in West Wales the Hawthorn is often seen shaped by the prevailing wind into fantastically contorted forms is a testament to its survival qualities!
I hope that the above and possibly also a look back at my earlier blog has given you some ideas for making more of any difficult spots in your own gardens. Choosing the right plants for such places is obviously key, as is giving them a good start by improving the soil and watering if necessary when young. In the hot, dry spots an addition of a layer of gravel to help reduce moisture loss is always a good idea and in the shady locations adding a layer of some form of organic mulch on an annual basis will help to replicate the conditions on a woodland floor which your plants will thank you for.
Finally for this month’s blog we are nearly at the end of the RHS list of nectar-rich plants for each month of the year and November’s main plant is the Winter-flowering Honeysuckle, Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’. This is a shrub which I highlighted a few months ago in my blog and talk on ‘Planning for the winter months’. It is a semi-evergreen shrub which in November is smothered in long-lasting, sweetly fragrant blooms. Each flower is two-lipped and white with protruding, yellow stamens which are accessible to most bees including the common carder bumblebees which are still active in November. Other recommendations are Sweet or Christmas Box, Sarcococca confusa another good plant for shady areas, Fatsia japonica with its clusters of large, white, pompom-like flowers, some of the autumn flowering Elaeagnus and autumn flowering Crocus, Crocus speciosus.
That’s all for this month but I shall be back in December for a look at the last month of the year and no doubt a look ahead to the new growing season to come. Until then keep well and enjoy the November garden as and when the weather allows you to!