I know this is late and there has been significant radio silence from the blog for the last six weeks, but activity is resumed and, if you have not already done them - here are one or two things to be getting on with this November. The weather has been so mild that it is hardly cold enough to feel autumnal, but the garden is now damp enough to be able to work the soil, which is still warm enough to be welcoming to plants which you are moving or adding to beds and borders. It is getting late in the season, but there is still time to move plants, especially if they are in containers. However, don't move grasses - they will be better left until next spring when they can enjoy the warmth of spring soil. Bare rooted plants such as deciduous trees and roses should planted from next month.
November is the time to plant tulip bulbs. At this time of year I empty the bulbs which have been allowed to dry out over the summer in their pots and put them into an informal border at the bottom of the garden. It is always a game of chance and some flower again next year and/or the year after while some fail, but, provided you have allowed the leaves to die back naturally and then allowed the pots to dry out so the fattened bulbs don't rot, you should have a good degree of success.
Then, I wash out the pots to avoid disease and plant them up again with new bulbs. I use terracotta pots with a diameter of about 30 centimetres and plant 10 bulbs of the same varuety in each. I don't add anything else. Some people create a bulb lasagne with layers of different types of bulb which flower in succession, but I love the unadulterated simplicity of tulips. This year I am planting some of my usual favourites - Spring Green, Purple Doll, Virichic and El Nino. After many years of planting Princess Irene I am giving this bulb a miss and instead am trying out Pimpernel - a viridiflora tulip (that means the flowers are marked with green) with pointed petals. Keep the pots outside in a sheltered place until the young shoots appear in April or thereabouts and then move them to the place you want them to be for flowering.
Virichic tulips - these are also viridiflora tulips - as you can see from the green markings on their petals. To their right you can just see Purple Doll.
Are a source of leaf mould, which is invaluable in the garden. You can also use chopped leaves (run over them with the lawnmower to mince them up nicely) as a mulch in established shrubberies where they really do suppress weeds, help the soil hold moisture and rot down to enrich the soil structure.
The leaves which have not been chopped and added as a mulch to a shrubbery can also be chopped up with the lawn mower and then gathered up and stored in a leaf mould bin for about a year. In Autumn 2023 you can dig them out (they will have collapsed in size to about a quarter of the original heap's size) and use them as a mulch, soil enricher and addition to potting compost.
Do not use thick leathery leaves or spiky leaves as they take much longer to rot down and can be uncomfortable to handle. You should also avoid diseased leaves - such as rose leaves which have black spot or hellebore leaves which show evidence of hellebore leaf spot. These are fungal diseases and the fungus will contaminate your leaf mould, spreading the problem. They are best burned or taken to the recycling centre.
Leaves having been chopped by the lawn tractor - sweep them into a manageable heap then mow over them.
A wire and post leaf mould bin in Central Park - New York. Yours doesn't need to be this big (and nor does mine).
Once you have cleared away all of the leaves which have covered bed, borders and lawns you begin to see the bare structure of the garden as it really is - making this an excellent time to assess where you might need to add a structural tree or shrub, hedge or, even a new border. It is also time to remove any perennial weeds which have been lurking under the leaves and, providing the soil is damp enough, to mulch wherever you are able to.
Mulching is a science all to itself. The term refers to providing a dense cover of material to the soil, avoiding going right up to the crown of plants (which would cause them to rot) and ensuring that the mulch is thick enough to exclude light, suppress weeds and conserve moisture beneath it (unless you have hens, of course, as they will immediately try to kick it all up again, ruining your best efforts. Such is life).
Mulch can be made of all sorts of materials depending on its principal purpose. Gravel, pebbles or cobbles over porous matting can be ornamental in purpose. An old carpet or tarpaulin laid over an empty vegetable bed can be a useful weed suppressant - and can even be used to kill weeds completely if there for long enough. If the carpet is natural fibres it will gradually rot down and add to the soil structure.
Plant based mulches such as leaves, chopped bark or wood chippings and garden compost are the most useful and most used mulches and this is the type of thing you are likely to add to the garden throughout the winter. They serve several purposes -
Soil enrichment. The plant material adds back nutrients which have been depleted from the soil by plants which have used them as they grow. It also adds humus which is organic matter formed from decomposing plants and animals. This is incorporated into the soil structure enabling the soil to retain water better yet drain more easily and become less compacted so that air can penetrate. Over time the soil becomes more "friable" or easier to work.
Even though you simply pile the mulch onto the surface of the soil it soon disappears underground, mainly thanks to the work of worms which drag the tiny pieces down. This is actually the principle of no dig vegetable beds where, as the name suggests, you don't turn the soil but mulch it heavily and leave nature to do the rest. An added bonus is that, because you leave the soil undisturbed, you do not damage its natural structure.
A raised bed with plenty of mulch and a generous crop of chard.
A thick layer of organic mulch around varigated hostas.
Weed suppression - Pile the mulch on thickly enough and you exclude light - so weeds cannot germinate or grow.
Water economy - a thick mulch applied to wet soil will suppress evaporation and your soil will remain wetter longer - assisted, of course, by the organic matter the worms have incorporating into it. So it almost goes without saying - never mulch dry earth as you will be keeping water out rather than the other way round.
Aesthetics - mulch can look very attractive.A rich brown blanket can set off plants beautifully - especially in winter when the garden's colour pallet moves towards earthy shades and textures. On the other hand, you may want a more stylised mulch of white or coloured stones, pebbles, shells, bark or raked gravel in the manner of a Japanese garden.
It is better to mulch thickly (say at least five centimetres deep) and only mulch part of the garden, than to apply a wafer thin mulch everywhere. We never have enough mulch or time to mulch everywhere each year so we do different areas of the garden each year.
What to plant in the vegetable garden in November
During November and December we will be planting garlic bulbs and broad beans (use a variety called Aquadulce which is the best for overwintering). We will be harvesting horseradish, salad leaves, leeks, beetroot, the last of the tomatoes, basil and chillies - whereupon the plants will be removed - and chard. I am married to a man with brassica-phobia, so we never grow broccoli, cabbage or Brussels sprouts, but he does grow cavolo nero (Italian black kale) just for me as I could not survive the winter without it. It is the perfect vegetable for one. You pull off the individual leaves as and when you want them - but it does taste sweeter after the first frost, so I will stick to ruby chard for now.