plant holly bushes to use as natural christmas decorations

Garden writer Marc Rosenberg, who has been gardening for 30 years and has contributed to the STIHL blog since 2018, shares what he’s sowing and growing with a diary from his small suburban garden. Keeping vegetable plots cropping over winter, laying a lush new lawn from turf and choosing shrubs with beautiful berries top the gardening jobs list for October… 

1. Beat Food Shortages

plant over-wintering onions in your garden in OctoberThe season of mists and mellow fruitfulness should be a time to celebrate the fruits of our labours as harvests are gathered ahead of winter. Yet, the joy of this enchanting season is being overshadowed by fears about empty supermarket shelves, fuel shortages and the soaring cost of living.

While gardeners who grow their own food can take comfort in garden sheds and garages full of stored apples and pears, and fridges crammed with the last of the season’s tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, it’s vital to plan ahead now and protect against ‘hungry gaps’ – periods where vegetable plots yield no produce between seasons.

That’s why I’m planting over-wintering onion sets that’ll swell during the colder months and be ready in July. ‘Sets’ are immature onions that are pushed into garden beds of firm soil, but at this time of year it’s vital to choose ‘autumn planting’ varieties that thrive on winter cold. You won’t go wrong with the golden flesh of ultra-reliable ‘Senshyu Yellow’ or attractive deep-red skins of onion ‘Electric’ – simply press each onion set in the ground, 5-10cm apart, so that only the tip is showing, and look forward to flavoursome onions for next summer’s salads.

To keep crops coming, I’m staking Brussels sprouts as buttons swell on their stems while ensuring they’re covered, along with cabbages, with netting to protect from birds. Autumn cauliflowers are picked quickly or they soon go over while the final maincrop potatoes remain in the ground for as long as possible (unless bad weather is forecast). Pumpkins are left on plants to ripen until later this month, unless frost is imminent, so crops are at their prime for cutting before Halloween.

clean your greenhouse to clean out pests2. Evict Greenhouses Pests

We all relish the opportunity to feel the warmth of winter sun when temperatures fall. For humans this means jetting farther afield but for plant pests looking to overwinter in a snug environment the answer to their prayers is on their doorsteps – the greenhouse.

With autumn harvest now over, greenhouses can be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. I remove everything – staging, plant pots and garden tools – before sweeping out and pressure-washing all interior and exterior surfaces. Next, glass is scrubbed with a general-purpose disinfectant such as Jeyes Fluid while glazing bars (a favourite hideaway for pests such as red spider mite) are washed, too. Thin plastic plant labels are a bonus for scraping out algae from overlapping glass panes, before I give the entire greenhouse structure a final pressure wash.

While the greenhouse is drying, staging and garden tools are cleaned outside. I fill a trug with warm water and disinfectant to scrub out all flower pots, trays and propagators. It never ceases to amaze me how many snails are lurking in empty plant pots!

3. Berry Nice Shrubs!

plant holly bushes to use as natural christmas decorations

Credit: Else Margriet pixabay

As the last flowers of summer fade away, shrubs that bear berries set autumn ablaze, with some lasting well into winter – as long as they’re not stripped by birds. Pyracantha ‘Orange Glow’ is one of my top recommendations for prolific clusters of vibrant orange berries, while Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’ is unbeatable for glimmering pink berries. 

I don’t like to talk about Christmas in October but it pays to plan ahead, because natural Christmas decorations are all the rage as we come under increasing pressure to reduce our reliance on plastics. Classic red berries of holly set against glossy, prickly leaves are synonymous with traditional Yuletide charm and as I only have room for one plant, Ilex aquifolium ‘J.C. van Tol’ was an obvious choice. It’s a self-fertile female, which means that it doesn’t need to be grown near to a male holly to produce magnificent clusters of sparkling red berries that will look a treat when sprigs are cut to bring into the house in December.

Viper Bugloss triffid plants will take off in October4. Triffid plants take off

It’s always fun to try growing something new. In March’s blog, I charted my first attempt at raising Giant Viper’s Bugloss (Echium pininana), a native of the Canary Islands, from seed. These towering exotic plants send up 4m (13ft) high spikes of blue flowers in late spring and early summer but they can be tricky to grow from seed, as germination is often erratic. Luckily, I ended up with lots of plants and some had to be given away to neighbours. 

Plants have flourished in plant pots of light, sandy compost over summer and now’s the time to settle them into their final growing positions where they’ll (hopefully) flower next year. I’ve planted the echiums in sunny, sheltered positions and am keeping my fingers crossed that we don’t have a bitter winter – although I’ll be keeping horticultural fleece handy to protect plants if we have a prolonged, sub-zero spell of wintry weather.

5. Roll Out a New Lawn

October is a great chance to lay new turf

Credit: Dylan Garton pixabay

Last month I planned to replace a short area of worn out lawn at the side of my house by sowing new grass from seed. Unfortunately, hardly a drop of rain fell during September which isn’t ideal, because lawn seed needs moist soil to germinate. So, I gave it a miss.

Laying a lawn from turf is more expensive but the makeover is instant and grass will benefit from an extensive root network to help it through winter. As long as the ground isn’t waterlogged or frozen, October is an ideal month to lay turf – but I only buy rolls of turf that have been freshly delivered, because stock that has been sitting around can deteriorate quickly.

The first job was to remove the existing sparse grass (and perennial weeds), dig the area over, firm down and level, raking in a sprinkling of general-purpose fertiliser. Once the first row of turf had been laid, I used a plank of wood to kneel on, working my way across the area, ensuring turves knitted closely together and cutting around obstacles using an old kitchen knife. If autumn remains dry, I’ll be keeping my new green oasis watered.

What gardening jobs are you planning in October? Will you be laying rolls of turf this month?  Let us know in the comments.

Marc Rosenberg bio
Marc Rosenburg at Powderham Plant CentreMarc Rosenberg is a freelance garden writer and editor. A former journalist with Amateur Gardening and Horticulture Week magazines, he holds seven Garden Media Guild Awards. Marc has written for publications including The Garden magazine, BBC Gardeners’ World and RHS online.