Autumn is a great time to get outside and clear away the dead stems and foliage of flowering plants as they recede underground. Some perennials are looking a mess just now, particularly if they have been flattened by heavy rainfall or have been blackened by frost. It is helpful to clear borders now if you are planting new plants and spring bulbs. It will also prevent you from damaging new buds emerging from the ground in spring. Cutting back your borders will certainly give you a head start in spring but try to resist the urge to be too tidy and leave some plant material for wildlife to enjoy over winter.
Seed heads of plants like Echinacea, Fennel, Sunflower and Verbena provide food for birds, seed heads and hollow stems provide shelter for beneficial insects such as ladybirds, and decaying leaves benefit ground beetles and worms. Some plants also provide ornamental interest particularly when they are dusted with frost, draped with delicately spun cobwebs or adorned with dew. For example: the robust, upright stems of Echinacea, the architectural seed heads of Eryngium, the pearlescent seed heads of Lunaria and the fluffy flowers of grasses, like Miscanthus. Finish tidying up the border in spring once new growth begins to appear.
Rake up leaves from lawns and from where they are smothering plants, to provide air and light. In particular, Alpine plants and Mediterranean herbs, like Lavender, Rosemary and Sage, should be cleared as they prefer dryer conditions with good air flow. Otherwise, leaves are best left as a protective blanket on the soil surface. Gradually, worms will pull them down, eat them and add valuable nutrients and organic matter to the soil.
Be sure to sweep leaves from paths and patios as wet leaves are extremely slippery.
Making leaf mould
Collect fallen autumn leaves to make leaf mould. Pile up the leaves or put them into a punctured bin liner and leave them for at least two years to break down into crumbly, black leaf mould. Do not make leaf mould using diseased leaves, for example Rose leaves with Black spot, or evergreen foliage, which takes a long time to break down. Leaves from Beech, Hornbeam and Oak break down the quickest and make good quality leaf mould.
Uses for leaf mould:
- It makes a wonderful soil conditioner and mulch.
- Well-rotted leaf mould can be sieved and used for seed sowing.
- When mixed with equal parts of sharp sand and top soil it can be used as potting compost.
- It can also be used on lawns as a top dressing.
It’s time to plant Tulip bulbs. Tulip bulbs are planted later than most other spring-flowering bulbs as this can prevent them from succumbing to the fungal disease, Tulip Fire. Choose healthy, undamaged bulbs and plant them at least 5cm (2in) apart and about 15-20cm (6-8 in) deep. Tulips do best in fertile, well-drained soil in a sheltered, sunny spot.
Most Tulips deteriorate when left in the ground and do not re-flower. It is best to replace them with new bulbs each year. Alternatively, carefully lift them once the leaves have died down, clean and store the bulbs somewhere cool and dry until November. Damaged or diseased bulbs should be discarded. (Dwarf species Tulips do not need to be lifted.)