Head Gardener’s monthly blog: October

13 October 2021

Head Gardener Pete White’s monthly blog

Welcome to my monthly article where I share some tips for your own garden as well as keeping you informed on some of the latest goings-on at Furzey.

Autumn is the perfect time for digging deep into our roots and reflecting on the season gone by. It’s quiet, beautiful and contemplative: the same is true of this coming month at Furzey Gardens.

Throughout the past twenty years, we’ve gradually planted more and more elements of the garden to improve our autumnal display. As a result, you can expect a rich array of colours if you join us in October and November. Our maples, in particular, are bursting with new and rich tones. One of my personal favourites is the osakazuki – a very old (it was first listed in the 1800s) Japanese variety. It’s commonly seen to be one of the best Japanese maples to grow for autumn colour: their colour is currently on the edge of turning into a brilliant crimson. We also have the seiryu, another Japanese variety known for its finely divided leaves in stunning golds and oranges, topped off with flecks of red. These colour quite late, and will bring a much appreciated splash of colour to the garden in the coming weeks.

Acer palmatum begins its autumn display whilst elsewhere signs of autumn are aplenty

Moving on through the garden, you will find a selection of rather rare plants thriving among the autumnal light and temperature. Pay a visit to our sassafras tzumu, a tree from China which is so rare in the UK that I’ve never actually seen it anywhere other than Furzey Gardens (although I’m sure it exists – please do let me know if you’ve spotted it for yourself elsewhere). We have two species which we have grown from seed in the 1990s. Their typically tri-lobed bright green summer leaves will now turn a bright orange, red and yellow autumn colour before falling. If you’re looking for something a touch softer, keep an eye out for our stewartia pseudocamellia. This is another attractive tree but far more subtle in its autumnal colouring; instead of reds and golds, it will shift into pinks and a pale orange. I also recommend taking a look at our disanthus cercidifolius, a very unusual flowering plant known for its wine red leaves during the autumn months. The really extraordinary thing about this plant is that the leaves are translucent. When viewed with the autumn sun, it almost looks like light is shining through a glass of red wine with a candle flickering in the background.

Ruby red leaves of disanthus cercidifolius and bright red berries awaiting collection by wildlife

While October might not feel like the obvious time to pull on your gardening gloves, there are many jobs that lend themselves perfectly to this time of year. For starters, October offers the perfect opportunity to look at your herbaceous perennial borders. It’s something that I recommend doing every three to four years. If the time is right, dig them up and split them down into clumps around one fifth of the original size. Some you will easily tease apart with your hands, while others will need two garden forks (simply put them back to back and use them to lever the roots apart) or even some serious hacking with a spade or axe. Once you have broken them apart, improve the site they come from with compost and/or manure and then replant half of the clump. The end result has a far stronger effect; plus, you can gift the remaining clump to your family or neighbours. Plants that will benefit from this include asters, agapanthus, hostas and helianthemums. However, there is an exception to the rule: ornamental grass will not appreciate this method, and you should save any dividing and replanting until the springtime.

Autumn is also prime time to look at your shrubs. As the leaves fall, take advantage of the chance to check in on the health and shape of the shrub. Things to look out for include any dead, diseased, weak or crossing branches, as well as the shape and whether it needs to be taller, more layered or horizontal. You can then prune it to get it in a stronger position ready for next year. A word of advice: don’t over prune. Shrubs most benefit from the ‘little and often’ approach. It should be a continual process year on year, and you should always refer to your gardening books (or the internet) for advice on the best way to prune particular shrubs – much like your ornamental grass, many shrubs prefer having work done on them during spring.

Keep an eye out for berries during October; these are often forgotten, despite their abundance in several places. Cotoneaster cornubia and clerodendrum trichotomum are both covered in berries right now; the latter is an incredibly bizarre (but beautiful) looking specimen: dark blue berries surrounded by pink magenta. I often think that it looks like a child has drawn it with a crayon, and the leaves smell like peanut butter when you rub them (again, the stuff of a child’s imagination!). You’ll find both at Furzey Gardens.

For the vegetable growers out there, there are several ways for you to make a head start on new crops. Peas, salad mixes, lettuce, and cauliflower will all survive the autumn drop in temperature. Research the best overwintering varieties, and also check in on the best ways to plant them (your peas, for example, will benefit from a sheltered spot and some extra protection).

There is so much to look out for as the environment truly embraces autumn. Of course the changing leaves are a sight to behold, but you can also expect thousands and thousands of migrating birds. At Furzey Gardens we are patiently waiting for the arrival of a huge flock of fieldfares; they visit every year to strip our malus robusta of its red berries. You’re also likely to spot more animals on the move that you perhaps don’t often see. As hedgehogs, bats and dormice prepare for hibernation, you may see them hunting out places to hide away over the winter. Similarly, many caterpillars will be seeking places to shelter. Often they do this in garages or garden sheds, so keep your eyes peeled and try not to disturb them.

Zelkova Serrata in autumn and young boy playing in autumn leaves at Furzey Gardens

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