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Gardening tips for autumn

Children raking leaves in the wild play area at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire
Children raking leaves in the wild play area at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire | © National Trust Images/Rob Coleman

Autumn is a special time of year for many gardeners. Allotments are brimming with fruit and veg and the soil in your garden will still be warm enough to plant spring bulbs, including daffodils, tulips and crocuses. To help you make the most of the season we're sharing tips on soil health, flower border maintenance and how to choose plants to invigorate the senses.

Things to do in the garden during autumn

Mulching your flower borders

If your compost is ready to use it can be spread on the soil between plants to hold in moisture, feed next year’s growth and insulate roots from the worst of the winter frosts. You can clear dead stems and foliage now too or leave them standing until spring to provide habitat for insects.

Harvesting fruit and vegetables

Now is the time to get over to the allotment or vegetable patch to collect what you can from the last of the summer crop before the cold weather comes. Autumn crops such as apples, pears, squash and leeks should all be ready to start harvesting now.

The garden team and volunteers plant daffodil bulbs in the west lawn at Polesden Lacey, Surrey.
Daffodil bulb planting on the west lawn at Polesden Lacey, Surrey. | © National Trust Images/Mark Wigmore

Planting bulbs and sowing seeds

Bulbs of tulips, crocuses and daffodils can be planted in pots or your flower borders. If you have a large area of grass try planting crocus bulbs in drifts for a vibrant colour show in early spring.
You can also sow seed of hardy annuals in early autumn, including cornflowers, scabious and winter salads.

Clearing leaves

When the leaves start to fall and the season heads into mid to late autumn it's a good idea to clear leaves from lawns and flower borders. Keep the leaves to make leaf mould to feed next year’s plants. Do this by piling leaves in wire cages and leaving them to break down. If you’re tight on space use strong bags tied at the top and add puncture holes near the base for air to circulate. This makes a good mulch to use on your plants next year.

Removing leaves from around roses is also a good idea as the leaves can harbour diseases during the winter.

Preparing your soil

Bare beds can be mulched with compost ready for planting straight into in spring. Weedy beds may need digging which can be hard work. You could try covering them with cardboard or an old woollen carpet off-cut. The cardboard and carpet will block out the light from any weeds and cause them to die back. This will make it much easier to dig in spring.

Green manure

If you can’t produce enough garden compost you can improve your soil by growing green manure. These crops are grown on bare ground either in spring or autumn and dug into the soil a few months later. This method enriches the soil and improves the structure. Crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum) has the ability to fix nitrogen from the air into nodules on their roots. The nitrogen is then released into the soil as they break down.

Creating a sensory garden

Experience nature with all your senses and design your garden and growing spaces around sight, touch, sound and smell. Discover which plants and trees can be planted in autumn to invigorate your senses during the winter months ahead.

Paperbark maple (Acer griseum)

The paperbark maple is a small tree for all seasons and can be planted from September–November. In the winter the copper-coloured peeling bark catches the sunlight on a crisp and clear day.

Tibetan Cherry Tree on the Winter Walk at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire
Tibetan Cherry Tree on the Winter Walk at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire | © National Trust Images/Mike Selby

Tibetan cherry tree (Prunus serrula)

This small tree may not be a first choice for flowers, but its glossy bronze bark is a spectacular sight in winter. It can be planted during the autumn in a sunny spot and suits a variety of soil types.

Wintersweet, daphne and Stachyurus praecox

If you like unusual plants then look out for these three late-winter beauties. Wintersweet, daphne and Stachyurus can be planted in autumn and will flower during the winter.

Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’

This popular winter-flowering shrub can be planted during the autumn. Put it in a sunny place and watch its fragrant pink flowers cover the stems from November to March.

Christmas box (Sarcococca hookeriana)

This small evergreen shrub can be planted during the autumn if the soil isn't frozen and will produce sweet-smelling white blooms during the winter. Plant it in moist but well-drained soil close to a path for best effect.

A gardener tending to the borders at Kingston Lacy, Dorset

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