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It was nice (well, sometimes) while it lasted, but that’s your lot: the nation’s unscheduled spell on gardening leave is coming to an end, and with a last, wistful look over the garden gate, we must head back to work, the school run, university and the rest. But what of our gardens? They’ve never looked better.
For a year and a half now, the nation’s 30 million gardeners – ranks swelled by three million lockdown first-timers – have lavished record-breaking amounts of time and money on them, newly appreciative of the sanctuaries they’ve become.
Though time spent on gardening will once again become a longed-for luxury, there’s no need for all that hard work to go to pot. You’ve put in the hard graft and got your garden together: now, with a few judicious shortcuts, you can keep it that way and it will take less time than you might think.
In the garden
You can mow the lawn, make leaf mould and mulch in one hit: “Picking up leaves on the lawn with your mower cuts the grass at the same time,” says Tom Brown, head gardener at West Dean, in Sussex. “It also accelerates the leaves breaking down, as they’re shredded.” Triple your time savings by spreading grass clippings straight on the ground as a winter mulch.
Let the lawn go
These days, we’re often still trudging along behind lawn-mowers into November – but there’s really no need for it. Give the lawn one last mow now, then leave the grass to grow long. You’ll provide winter shelter for wildlife, protect the soil and encourage hidden wild flowers, such as wild primroses, to show themselves next spring.
Mow smarter and let the lawn go, recommends Sally Nex
Credit: GAP Photos/Ron Evans
Cut back later
Leave cutting back perennials until spring – spent flower stems take ages to snip back now, while they’re still full of moisture, but by February they’ll be fully dry and you can simply pull them away. Hollow flower stems provide invaluable insect hibernating spots, and many, including Rudbeckia deamii, Veronicastrum virginicum and most ornamental grasses, look fabulous rimed in winter frost.
Work through the borders doing one last speed-weed, hand-pulling or hoeing every unwanted opportunist you can find, so that you start winter with a weed-free garden. Top off with a 2in mulch of organic matter and you will bury annual weed seeds too deep for them to sprout. After the blitz, you can relax. As perennial weeds are growing considerably more slowly at this time of year, any regrowth can wait until you have time to deal with it.
Cover the ground
“Plant a living mulch – well-chosen ground-cover plants grown en masse will vastly reduce the need to weed, and ultimately help to sustain a better soil structure; it’s far better than having patches of bare earth. Geraniums, comfrey and bugle are all excellent for this,” says Matt Collins, head gardener at the Garden Museum in London.
In the veg plot
Get mulching now to save you hard work on the veg plot next spring
Credit: Andrew Crowley
Leave leftover veg plants to self-seed for effort-free new plants next year. Lettuce, chard and annual herbs such as chervil are good self-sowers: let them do their thing each year and you’ll never faff about with seed trays again. Dig up seedlings once 2in-3in tall and replant 6in apart where you want them.
Don't dig in
Don’t bother digging in summer green manures such as buckwheat or Phacelia – let them die down. Left in situ, dead stems become a zero-effort winter mulch, dense and thick enough to fend off weeds and weather. Rake it all off in spring before sowing.
Mulching will save hours of hard work next spring. If you leave soil exposed, winter batters it into a hard, weed-pocked pan that takes ages to get back into plantable condition. Tuck up veg beds now beneath a thick blanket of compost, municipal green waste or well-rotted farmyard manure and they’ll stay spring-ready till you need them.
After a hard day’s work the last thing you want is to trawl round the garden looking for something to eat. Most crops keep perfectly well for several days in the fridge. Garden designer Jack Wallington has a big end-of-season session: “I set aside a day to harvest everything I can, from winter-storing squashes to greens,” he says. “If there’s a large amount, I rope in friends with the promise of a cake or dinner!”
All things container
Revamping containers with bedding each spring and autumn is time-consuming and costly – so don’t. Instead, group evergreens and shrubs that offer year-round interest with summer perennials for a mini-garden that looks good for ages. Try Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’, evergreen grass Carex oshimensis, Penstemon ‘Raven’ and Erysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’, with a few dwarf daffodils beneath for spring.
Credit: GAP Photos/Nicola Stocken
Mulch with gravel
Don’t fuss about keeping containers looking good when winter wants to turn them into a mess. A 2in layer of gravel on top of the compost acts like a soakaway
for rain, so foliage stays dry and it keeps weeds out, too.
Avoid exposed spots
Before winter sets in, group pots in the lee of a house wall or fence, out of the worst of the wind, frost and rain, where they can form their own protective microclimate. You’ll avoid having to troubleshoot cracks, too. Raise them on pot feet for rain to drain and prevent waterlogging.
“Plant bulbs in pots now: then you can have them ready and waiting to pop into the border or on display next spring,” says Francine Raymond, Telegraph columnist.
For superior houseplants, make a terrarium - or create a "supergroup" mini biosphere
Credit: Christopher Pledger
Just add water
Make self-watering pots out of old drinks bottles. Cut a two-litre plastic bottle in half, then drill a hole in the lid and thread a loop of jute string through. Fill this half with compost, pulling the jute loop up so it sits among the compost. Fill the bottom
half with water, then slot the top in, letting the ends of the string loop dangle. Plant with microgreens, herbs or baby leaf salads: the string acts as a wick, keeping your windowsill garden watered for you.
Form a supergroup
Plants growing together form their own mini biosphere, helping each other so you don’t have to. Lush, leafy ferns, weeping figs and Philodendrons give off moisture constantly, so buddying them up creates the humidity they need to thrive. Clustering plants with similar needs together cuts time spent with a watering can, too.
Try a terrarium
Move plants into a closed terrarium to cut out watering altogether. This works best for smaller, moisture-loving plants such as ferns, ivy, golden pothos and Peperomia: use almost any large container, from jars to fish tanks, as long as you can seal it tight. Start with a 2in layer of gravel, then a 1in layer of charcoal, then 4in-6in of compost: plant your houseplants in the compost, water once and close the lid. The water circulates and recirculates within the closed system, keeping plants happy and healthy for months at a time.
In the greenhouse
A greenhouse interior packed with tender Aeonium, Crassula, Sedum, pelargoniums and begonias
Credit: GAP Photos/Nicola Stocken
Plug the gap
Use salad plug plants to reboot greenhouse borders – it’s much quicker than fiddling about with seed. Order now from peat-free suppliers, such as rocketgardens.co.uk or organicplants.co.uk, and pot up into 4in pots. Then plant plugs 6in apart, add fresh compost and enjoy fresh salads till spring.
Instead of fitting bubblewrap insulation, take an “as-and- when” approach. Frosts
often don’t arrive till January and are often not severe. Most borderline-hardy plants tolerate a few degrees below zero if kept dry at the roots. For lower temperatures, use hessian and shredded newspaper to wrap plants.
Plants are growing more slowly now as the weather cools and the days shorten. Besides, overfeeding ripening tomatoes now just causes problems, such as blossom end rot. Too much water also dilutes the flavour to an insipid travesty of what it should be. So drop the daily watering routine: once or twice a week is all they need from here on.
Shop it - time-saving gadgets worth a try
From watering spikes (like this one from elho) to weed guns, these gadgets will save you time
Robotic mowersTricky to set up, but once you’ve mastered laying the edging wire, your tortoise-like mower ambles around, peacefully mowing the lawn by itself, forever. husqvarna.com/uk
Self-watering potsKeep balcony and patios looking lush – let your plants water themselves by using containers with water reservoirs that use capillary action to deliver water for up to three months. lechuza.co.uk
Automatic irrigation systemsSolar-powered irrigation kits water more frequently when the sun is out – a simple but genius idea. irrigatia.com
Weed gunsZap weeds in driveways and paving with a bolt of electricity, without using chemicals and in a fraction of the time (and trouser knees) it takes to hand-weed. hozelock.com
Watering spikesDon’t fret about watering your houseplants: just insert an elegant, inexpensive water spike into each pot instead. The best will keep plants happy for weeks at a time. elho.com
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