Your autumn gardening strategy

October 11th, 2020
Posted In: Gardening know how, Town gardens

Autumn gardening, these days, starts with planting next summer’s perennials, trees and shrubs.

I’ve interviewed some wonderful head gardeners this year, such as Asa Gregors-Warg at the Beth Chatto Gardens, Stephen Herrington from Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens and Neil Miller of Hever Castle & Gardens.

They have all said that although both spring and autumn were once considered equally good times for planting perennials, shrubs and trees, we have recently had very dry spring weather. This means that autumn, which has more rainfall, is a better time for planting.

Jane Moore

Jane Moore, head gardener at the Bath Priory Hotel and author of Planting for Butterflies.

And for the other autumn gardening tips, I’ve just talked to award-winning head gardener, Jane Moore, of the Bath Priory Hotel. As well as running a town garden that needs to look good 365 days a year for hotel guests, she is also the author of Planting for Butterflies, reviewed here.

Bath Priory Hotel garden

Part of the formal garden at the Bath Priory Hotel.

Autumn gardening priorities

The first thing to do in autumn, says Jane, is to hold back on the secateurs. ‘Do nothing. It’s so tempting to start cutting things back, but things often look so good as we go into autumn. I really like plants that die well, so I try to pick plants that go over really nicely.’

The Sunken pond at the Bath Priory Hotel

It can be tempting to start cutting back, but see how everything dies back naturally advises Jane.

These include verbena bonariensis, which makes a beautiful outline for the winter garden.

And also hydrangeas, which are ‘unsung heroes of the garden,’ says Jane. ‘They’re so easy going. And although I love them when they’re in flower, they’re almost better as they go over. They often turn from white or green into some really beautiful rusty pink shades.’

There’s a post here about what you need to know about growing hydrangeas.

autumn colours hydrangeas

Hydrangeas often go a beautiful rusty pink as they age – just as beautiful in autumn as in summer.

You can still take cuttings…

As Jane starts a bit of gentle cutting back, she takes cuttings. ‘It’s not an ideal time of year to be taking cuttings, but you can still get plants to take root.’ You can take cuttings from plants, such as salvias or pelargoniums ‘as you’re taking them in.’

Leave ornamental grasses for wildlife and winter interest

‘I always leave the ornamental grasses. I never cut them back until the spring. That’s partly because they look good in winter, but it’s also because it does give a lot of little creatures a little bit of nesting material for hibernating.

As I was tidying up a Stipa tenuissima in autumn once, I found a lump of grass, so I thought I ought to tidy that up. I lifted it and there was a lovely hedgehog all curled up asleep under it. So I put it down again.’

Ornamental grasses offer shelter for wildlife

Don’t cut back ornamental grasses until the spring – they look good in the winter garden and they offer shelter for wildlife.

Collect seed and leave some for the birds

‘I collect a lot of seeds,’ says Jane. ‘There’s something special about seeds from plants that have grown well in your garden. They’re likely to carry on doing well.’

‘And if you go on picking out the best of the best every year and taking seed from them, then you’re honing those plants to be the best variety of what you want for your garden.’ For example, Jane always marks out the deepest burnt orange calendula and gathers their seed to ensure she gets the shade she likes best.

She has some plants in the garden that can trace their origins back to one packet of seeds in 2007.

However, if your plant is an F1 hybrid – and it will say F1 in its name on the packet – then don’t try to collect its seeds. F1 hybrids are developed by seed companies and rarely breed true from their own seed.

Collect seeds for autumn gardening success

Amaranthus is one of Jane’s favourite plants for collecting seed, along with calendula (marigold). ‘But I’ve had really poor germination rates from some of the vegetable seeds I’ve saved, particularly French beans.’

‘It doesn’t take any time to collect seed,’ says Jane. And if it doesn’t work out – well, gardening’s all about trying and failing, isn’t it?

Jane also likes to leave seed on some plants for the birds. ‘You can see birds enjoying lavender seeds, for example, quite late into the winter.’ (I have one forgotten lavender plant that I keep meaning to cut back, but I shall leave it now.)

Autumn gardening cutting back

As autumn turns to winter, Jane starts to cut back more vigorously. I particularly like the way the Bath Priory Hotel has left a number of fallen trees and logs in the garden. They look like modern sculpture and offer a habitat for wildlife.

Fallen trees are beneficial to insects

A fallen ash tree in the Bath Priory Garden. It adds texture and interest to the garden and is particularly good for insects.

Fallen log in the Bath Priory Garden

Another beautiful fallen log in the Bath Priory Garden.

Fallen mulberry tree

This fallen mulberry tree is still growing – the trunk is still partially connected to the roots, so Jane has left it there. I think it looks very pretty.

Plant spring bulbs to naturalise under trees

Planting bulbs is a key part of Jane’s autumn gardening. ‘We always plant pots of tulips for a real spring show. Our first NGS tours are in the spring so I get the pots ready for that.’

‘We also naturalise quite a lot of bulbs. I really like using the wild daffodil Narcissus pseudonarcissus and anemone blanda. Anemone blanda is so easy to naturalise, and really doesn’t cost very much.’

Jane really loves to create little spring glades under decidous trees. ‘There’s something about trees coming to life in the spring. And if you’ve got a carpet of bulbs underneath, the whole thing creates a beautiful scenario.

For example, there is an Amelanchier lamarckii in the garden which has wonderful white spring flowers before it gets any leaves. ‘It looked so beautiful at the top level that it needed something to balance it out at ground level. So that’s where we planted wild daffodils and anemone blanda.

For more spring bulb planting ideas for the garden, see this post about bulbs at Doddington Place Gardens in Kent.

Cedar of Lebanon tree at the Bath Priory

This Cedar of Lebanon tree has a cyclamen around its base in autumn. In spring there are naturalised bulbs and anemones.

More about Planting For Butterflies

Butterflies are a good indicator of a healthy eco-system in a garden, says Jane. They’re pollinators and, like most insects, they’re the first rung on the food chain. So they’re environmentally important as well as beautiful to have fluttering around your garden.

Planting for Butterflies helps you identify the butterflies you’re most likely to see in your garden. It lists the plants these butterflies need, either for the nectar they live on or as ‘host plants’, where they lay their eggs.

The book is not just for those with larger gardens. It has advice for butterfly-friendly pots, window boxes and tiny courtyards.

Planting for Butterflies

Note that Amazon links are affiliate, which means I may get a small fee if you buy. But I only recommend things I myself use or books I recommend.

More autumn gardening advice

If you want the best possible autumn colour from your shrubs and trees, you need to plant them where they will get the right amount of sun. Find out about better autumn colour here.

And for a look at what works and what doesn’t in my own autumn garden, see this post.

The Bath Priory Hotel

The Bath Priory Hotel has an award winning restaurant (we had a delicious meal!) and is also open for lunches and teas as well as hotel stays. The gardens are also open for the NGS several times a year.

Bath Priory hotel

You can always see more of a garden in video, so do take a tour of the Bath Priory Hotel gardens here:

Disclosure: we paid as normal guests – this wasn’t gifted or sponsored.

Shop my favourite gardening tools, books and products

I’m often asked for recommendations so I’ve made lists of my favourite gardening tools, books and products on the Middlesized Garden Amazon store. For example, there’s a list of wildlife friendly gardening books and products here.

Pin to remember autumn gardening tips

And do join us every Sunday morning for more gardening tips, ideas and inspiration. See here to follow the Middlesized Garden by email.

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