What to do in the garden in October

Broad bean second crop

By October the garden is looking autumnal, and the weather is capricious. One day it's an Indian summer and the next day frost. In 2019 the north of England had its first frost on the night of 1st/2nd October, so it is easy to be caught out.

If Autumn is mild, veg plants will continue cropping. The image left, taken in October, is of a second crop of Broad beans - how to achieve late cropping Broad beans

Protect tender plants

Before frosts bite bring under glass, all half-hardy plants which have had a summer outing, tender herbs, Chilli plants, Pelargoniums, citrus fruits, olive trees, and any tender exotics.

Here are some ideas and tips on how to overwinter tender plants and save money so you can plant them out next year as summer bedding.


Divide Perennials

This is a good time to divide up herbaceous perennials and move plants around. Many perennials flower less with time and become congested. Illustrated is a clump of Day lily which is has not been flowering well. Dig it up, cut it into smaller pieces and pick of the best parts, planting the newer growing areas and compost the old tired centre of the plant. It makes a mess in the border, established plants are hard to dig out, which is why it is a good job to do now. If plants get a bit trampled and trodden on, it matters not much in October but can be a disaster in May.  

You need to check individual plants because the rule of thumb is divide every 3-5 years but some plants, Achillea prefer more often and others, Peony don't like to be disturbed at all.  If you have a plant which is failing to flower well, and it has a bald patch in the middle, chances are it needs to be divided.  If the plant is very congested, you may need to hack at it with a sharp spade, don't worry it will rejuvenate in the spring. 

dividing perennials

The Big Clear up

By October the garden can look a bit of a mess, collapsing perennials, dying leaves and debris. Autumn is the time to clear up on the garden and one decision is which plants to cut back?

I suggest those with unsightly faded leaves, such as Delphinium, geraniums, are best cut back, but others with ornamental seed heads such as poppies, Allium, grasses are best left alone for now. 

Cut right back to ground level: Peonies, Leucanthemum, Nepeta (Cat Mint) Delphinium, Hardy Geraniums, Phlox.

Slightly less hardy perennials such as Penstemons are best left with the top growth in place. It provides some winter protection and should not cut back until the spring to give some cover for the plant from the winter weather. 

After clearing and cutting back the borders, which often seems to take into November at least, it's a good time to spread a mulch to help the more tender plants through the winter and to improve the organic structure of the soil.

More information about mulching a border.


How to make a simple leaf mould bin

leaf mould bin

 If your garden has trees, it is worth saving the leaves to make leaf mould, which is an excellent mulch for the garden and when sieved makes good compost. It is easy to make a pen; just mould chicken wire into a bin with a stake in each corner to give structure. Rake up and pile the leaves in and they will rot down over the gardening year, ready to spread on borders as mulch following winter/spring. You can tell when it's ready as it will be well rotted and crumbly.   If you have no space, you can store in bin bags but it is important to put holes in to allow the air otherwise it will become a slimy mess. 

Autumn Sow Sweet Peas

Autumn Sow sweet peas

 Sweet peas can be germinate in Autumn, but they will need to be kept overwinter in a frost-free greenhouse/cold frame. Sowing in the Autumn can produce sturdier plants for the spring, which gives a head start when planting out, and they will flower earlier. Germinate seeds in a warm place using root trainers. Although sweet peas can be grown in cardboard tubes, these are not ideal for overwintering because over time they will tend to disintegrate. Root trainers are much preferable for the Autumn sown sweet peas

 Sow one or two seeds to each pot and when they have germinated and started growing, harden off on milder days outside, gradually getting the plants acclimatised to the colder weather and bring in under glass before it gets really cold. Alternatively, you can start and grow them on in the greenhouse under glass. The sweet peas will be fine in a greenhouse all winter and will need to be pinched out at the top growing points 2 or 3 times depending on the rate of growth. This will make the plants bush and produce more stems and, in the spring, more flowers. 

The growing sweet pea page has images showing how to nip out the growth point and how this action makes Sweet pea branch out to create more stems. 

Plant spring bulbs

 Autumn is the traditional time for planting spring bulbs. Daffodils need to go in first in September and October; Tulips later in November. Timing is important especially for Tulips which need to be planted late.

The correct planting depth is very important to ensure flowering, too shallow and they may not flower after year one. An easy rule of thumb is plant the bulb 3 times its own depth and you are unsure, plant deeper rather than shallow. 

If you are looking for inspiration and ideas for spring bulbs check out the Spring bulbs on Pinterest and for more information and planting advice about planting spring bulbs

fireflight tulips

Autumn planting Perennials and Shrubs

 Autumn is also a good time to plant perennials and shrubs. The soil is warm, there is less leaf growth, so the plant puts energy into roots, and there is usually plenty of rain.

Autumn, before the weather and the ground get cold, is an ideal planting time for almost anything except half-hardy plants as they will not be sufficiently established before the cold hits. Also avoid planting drought-tolerant plants as the winter wet will be too much of an early challenge. 

Geranium and Achemillia Mollis

Autumn Crocus

Autumn Crocus

 This is Colchicum autumnale, common name Autumn Crocus, a bulb similar to the familiar Spring variety, but it flowers in the Autumn. It is usually offered for sale in the summer for planting. The flowers appear first followed by the leaves and they make a lovely splash of colour. It is best planted in July /Augusts into well drained soil. Colchicum are all purple and mauve flowering but note they are highly poisonous. 

Plant Winter Pansies

winter pansey

This is a good time to plant winter bedding. The garden centres are full of pansies and violas, and they come home from the garden centre looking lovely but often after a short while they seem to sulk, sometimes for the rest of the winter.

This can be because the bedding plants in the garden centre have had a near ideal upbringing, in a temperature-controlled poly tunnel, with just perfect conditions. When we buy the plants they are uprooted and plonked outside in the cold wet chill; result sulk.

A tip is to plant the bedding earlier into the container in which they are going to spend the winter, and then place the container under glass/in the greenhouse or in a sheltered spot to give the plants a bit of time to get established and put their roots down, introducing the plants gradually to the real outside weather as you would summer bedding. That way the pansies and violas might actually flower through the winter.

Saving seed

nasturtium seeds

October is ideal for seed collection for use next year. In the image are Nasturtium seeds which are so easy to pick they fall off the plant, store easily and germinate very well providing lots of free summer bedding. Nasturtiums are so easy they are a good place to start if you want to try saving and using seeds from your own plants.

Collect the seed heads and dry out they will turn brown and then take out the seed, carefully shaking or scraping out the small seeds and store packets in a dry place - a sealed tin is useful. Label even if the seed looks distinctive because next spring it will just be seed, and mystery seed. Once thoroughly dry a good place to store overwinter is the refrigerator. 

Prune Roses

From now until early winter is the time to prune roses, especially climbing roses. This is a general prune reducing size by about a third to prevent wind rock. 

Wind rock is caused by the long stems of the roses being caught by the wind, which makes the plant rock and move around in the wind, which in turn loosens its footing and roots. Over-time the entry point of the trunk into the soil widens and allows in water and ice thus damaging the plant and its roots. By reducing the top growth there is less for the wind to catch, and so it's a good idea to cut by about a third.

Autumn Lawn Care

Lawn advice comes at the end of this long list of gardening jobs, as it's such hard work but autumn is a good time to work on the lawn. In Sept/October depending on the weather if it's still warm enough to repair a patch by raking up the soil, covering with compost and grass seed. The lawn can be raked to remove thatch, spiked to ease compacting and improve drainage, and given an autumn feed. 

If all that sounds too much like hard work just do one thing: rake up and remove autumn leaves because if left the lawn it will kill the lawn underneath the leaves leaving unsightly patches.  More advice on lawns and an infographic on lawn care.

October in the Veg plot

Harvest time

Tomatoes are slowing down in the greenhouse and depending on the weather, it may be time to cut them on the vines to ripen indoors. Check out below a foolproof way to ripen tomatoes.

The harvest in the veg plot is winding down as far as tender Summer vegetables are concerned. If it stays warm, there may be a late crop of beans which will continue cropping at a slow rate until frost.

Main crop Carrots can be lifted if needed, or left where they can remain all winter. The only exception is if your veg plot is wet and heavy, over winter the carrots may rot, in which case it's best to lift them and store.  After digging up cut off the top foliage and store in cool dark dry place, such as a garage and check regularly to make sure that a bad carrot is not infesting the rest.

If you are sowing late lettuce and rocket in the veg plot, it may need protection such as a cloche to ensure it germinates. Both Lettuce and Rocket are quite hardy and will continue growing well into late autumn and early winter.

More information  How to Grow Winter Lettuce.

ripening toms

Tomato care

Tomatoes will continue to ripen slowly depending on sunshine and warmth levels in Autumn. To take care of tomatoes and encourage fruiting continue to remove any faded or discoloured leaves to prevent disease. In addition, remove any flowers or tiny tomatoes which, by this stage, are unlikely to come to fruit before the weather changes completely. 

 Eventually, as light and warmth get less,  you will need to cut your losses and bring the tomatoes inside somewhere warm ripen. Sometimes it's not easy to get these late tomatoes to ripen. A fool proof way to ripen tomatoes is to cut them on the vine and then place on warm window sill, sunny porch or conservatory in dish or on cardboard and leave to ripen; they will and it works. More information on a fool proof way to ripen tomatoes. There is no need for green chutney unless you like it.  

Planting onion sets

Plant Onions and Garlic

In early to mid-autumn Garlic and Onions can be planted to overwinter in the plot and get a head start on spring next year. In particular, Garlic benefits from a chilly spell of at least a month below -7C for the bulbs to mature.Plant in autumn if your soil is not too heavy or waterlogged, alternatively plant into containers and overwinter outside if your soil is prone to water logging.

Plant in the usual way in autumn as in the spring, albeit it slightly differently for onions and garlic, with both take care not to damage the base by pushing into the soil too hard. The roots sprout from this point it is better to use a trowel or dibber. Keep a few spares to replace those which the pigeons will inevitably steal.

Save herbs for winter


Tender Herbs Basil, Coriander, Parsley, Dill & Mint cannot withstand frost and it is best to pot them up and bring under cover before any autumn chill. Whilst mint and Parsley are frost hardy, the winter damages it and the leaves are not so good.

An indoor herb garden is handy, even with some hardy herbs in it as it saves the dash out in the rain/sleet/snow to pick culinary herbs.

This is also a good time to replenish dried herbs which lose their pungency after storage. Ideal for drying are oregano, sage, thyme and rosemary, although as hardy perennials they can be picked all year round. One method to dry herbs is to first blanch for just one minute and then strip leaves from stalks, lay on tray in the oven on lowest setting with door open to allow any moisture to escape.  Leave like this for about 30 mins and when cool place in air-tight jars.

Equally the simple method is to pick them, hang up to dry and then collect into jars.  

Pot up Strawberry Runners

  If you have taken runners from the strawberry plants earlier in the year, now is a good time to plant them out. Before doing so just check they are well rooted and then plant out well spaced in the strawberry bed ready for next year. Plant them in an area of the plot which will be easy to cover with a net, which is essential if you want to enjoy the strawberries rather than the birds.  

Strawberries are an easy crop to grow.

updated 04.09.2020