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As autumn takes hold and the leaves begin to change colour there are miraculous changes occurring in the garden. Many of the natural processes’ plants go through at this time of year is in preparation for the coldest, wettest and windiest of weathers that may be approaching over winter.

So many plants and, in particular those from temperate climates, have periods of dormancy - with light levels so low deciduous plants have evolved a strategy to maximise their efficiencies.

Getting outside, watching and noticing these cycles close up is wondrous and can provide the inspiration needed to overcome the elements.

There are lots of things we can do to protect the plants and structures in our garden as well, remembering that many of the plants in our gardens have been propagated to have distinct qualities, and sometimes this may have made them less hardy. Additionally, we may have plants that evolved in warmer climates that need particular care.

  • Actively supporting the health of plants engages our nurturing side and enables us to feel as if we are supportive of other living things. If we are careful in the way we prepare gardens for winter we will also be giving wildlife a helping hand
  • There is a good bit of exercise to be had from the range of activities
  • It provides a good reason to be getting outside into our gardens as the range of tasks may now be decreasing
  • Gets us up close and personal with plants at a time when they may have different sensory qualities. You'll notice lots of fascinating changes in plant life and meet some wildlife
Mushroom autumn
  • Children can likely be involved in lots of these activities; they may need some support with heavier tasks but an extra pair of hands while you are working with fleece can be very helpful
  • There are so many interesting processes occurring in the garden at this time of year, a hive of activity as nature prepares for the darker and colder times of winter and so it can be a great time to learn about life in our gardens
  • There is plenty of time to do some of these activities over winter so pace yourself
  • A sturdy plastic container can be a great tool for applying mulch when shovels are more difficult and cumbersome to use, and you can experiment to find the one that is the best size and weight for you
  • 10 minutes tightening up the wheelbarrow or putting air in its tires before you start using one saves time and makes bigger mulching jobs easier
  • Our Carry on Gardening information has lots of hints and tips for making these types of job easier

Some very tender perennial plants may need lifting and storing in indoors, plants such as Cannas, dahlias and pelargoniums can be stored.

In warmer and protected sites this may not be necessary but in colder and exposed gardens, lifting is likely the best choice to protect the plant. The tender plants that need this attention all have to be prepared and stored slightly differently and you can search the internet for specific guidance for a plant.

We can sometimes end up with more tender plants in larger containers and so these could be moved indoors as well - sheds and glasshouses usually have enough shelter to protect them from frost, which is the aim here.

In warmer climates with the tender plants above and all the other plants in our garden, a mulch applied over autumn will protect the soil around the base of plants, protect the roots from frost by adding an extra layer of insulation and protect the structure of soil from wind, and in particular rain damage. Being careful not to completely bury any of the crowns of perennial plants, this task is best to complete before we cut back.

We can also protect some plants with a horticulture fleece and this can be applied in different ways. Sometimes wrapped around plants as with tree ferns and then sometimes covering plants on the ground like camomile or some overwintering salad - this approach to ground cover protects from wind and rain, perhaps even more than from cold.

Horticulture fleece can have a short life and is difficult to recycle and so it is best if you can to buy very good quality where you may get 2-3 years use. Straw placed around plants can have a similar effect to fleeces and has the benefits of being a biodegradable material, applying during a calmer period of weather enables it to become moist and intertwine leaving it less prone to blowing around if you try and apply it on windier days.

Celery plant with mulch

Containers can suffer in some winter weathers; they can retain water after heavy rain that can freeze completely as the soil in containers is exposed on every side. Raising containers onto broken slabs or upturned pots will avoid some frost and promote good drainage. It might be good to think about their positioning as well and find a more sheltered spot for them over winter.

Traditionally at this time of year people have for a long time cut back perennials. Now we know that perennial plants and their dying stems are great wildlife habitats so it is important to make good choices.

Do look over your perennials and if there is any sign of mould or fungus it is best removed - grasses and sedges are particularly vulnerable. Some very tall perennials like hollyhock or cardoon may benefit from being cut back in autumn in the first year or second to protect against root disturbance from high wind. It may be that some things are looking very untidy and cutting these back while leaving some stems for the wildlife is a good approach.

Pruning rose

Some of the structures in our gardens are going to be vulnerable to very windy weather so it is good at this time of year to check trellis, obelisks, and fencing to see if some re-enforcement could be a good investment of time.

Do securings need replacing, or can some additional securing be added? Damaged and weakened fencing is difficult to protect but loose posts can be secured a little more with bricks around the base or even a splint or brace, although you are only likely adding a few more seasons of life.

Bare soil is susceptible to damage over winter - many an allotmenteer will cover their ground with membrane and even old carpet to protect from rain in particular. In vegetable gardens and beds, the more natural way of protecting ground would be to use a green manure (sorry, this guide may find you too late to sow this year) or mulch. Both protect the soil structure and provide additional nutrients.

All of these options do protect bare soil and can leave you with a good start to growing in the spring.

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Mary and Imogen