In most parts of the UK, the first frosts occur in October, together with wind and rain. In some years there may be an Indian summer with much milder weather, which stimulates the plants into fresh growth. In many respects
October is similar to the spring months in terms of both temperature and length of daylight hours, which allows you to perform many of the operations usually left until March. This holds two distinct advantages: plants start into growth much earlier the following year, and you are able to complete tasks while there is less pressure from other work.
Remove any remaining summer bedding plants. Tidy mixed beds and remove dead foliage from
herbaceous perennials. Lift and divide roots to increase stock and to stimulate into fresh growth.
Once the outside (or early) varieties of chrysanthemum have finished flowering, cut them back to about 10cm/4in above ground level. In very cold districts the roots must be lifted and overwintered in a cold greenhouse or frame.
Plant bulbs for displays – daffodils, hyacinths, crocuses, tulips and irises – together with pansies, polyanthus, primroses, wallflowers and forgetme nots. In less formal situations plant violets, winter aconites and some of the less familiar bulbs such as fritillaries, scillas and alliums.
Gather and store seeds of annuals and perennials which germinate true to type. Seeds of hardy annuals may be sown at this time. They produce their flowers earlier but losses are usually greater owing to the bad weather.
Overwinter tender plants in frost proof conditions. As soon as the foliage of dahlias has been blackened by the first frost, cut it back to 15cm/6in. Lift the tubers and hang them upside down until all of the liquid has drained out of the stems before storing. Before the first frosts, 486 gladioli and begonias should be cut back to 5cm/2in. allow the corms to dry off, and, after removing the dead material, store them in open boxes.
Lift cannas and bring inside. Tender fuchsia brought inside should be planted in a pot containing a loam-based compost and given only sufficient water to stop them drying out over the winter, but recently taken cuttings and standards in their first year must be watered and maintained in growth throughout the winter.
For the earliest and best sweet peas, sow during the middle of the month five to a 7cm/3in flower pot. Overwinter the seedlings in a cold frame or unheated greenhouse.
Greenhouse and indoors
Clear the summer crops and clean the greenhouse fumigate or treat with horticultural disinfectant. Insulate to reduce heat losses by placing clear polythene inside of the panes to create secondary double glazing. Where a heater is used, it will be necessary to switch it on during the colder nights. On dry days the house must be freely ventilated (from now onwards damp, and the fungal growth which it causes is as much a problem as frost).
Central heating results in dry air, which can be harmful to many plants. If leaves suddenly turn yellow, stand the pots over a saucer of gravel that is kept permanently wet. Plants with variegated leaves may show signs of stress unless they are placed in full sunlight.
Reduce watering those plants that need a rest period during the winter months cease watering cactus altogether by the end of the month. Other plants should be given only sufficient water to ensure that the compost does not dry out completely. Hippeastrums grown on from previous years can be repotted from now onwards.
Mild conditions will result in rapid growth of grass, which should be cut as often as possible this month as you cannot be sure how long it will be before you are able to get on to the lawn again. Lawns should be aerated and treated with autumn fertiliser at the beginning of the month. Freshly seeded lawns should be left until the spring before they are cut.
Remove dead leaves and other debris from marginals and water lilies. If you have a good supply of rainwater, use it to replace half of the pond water this month (this is good routine management for maintaining water quality).
Trees and shrubs
Hedges can be planted from October onwards. Deciduous trees and shrubs can be propagated from hardwood cuttings. Take a cutting at a joint, but without the heel, about 30cm/1ft in length. Bury it to half its depth in well-drained soil. Usually the rooted cuttings are ready for setting out in their permanent site during the winter of the following year. Roses and other deciduous shrubs that require moving can be transferred immediately they have shed their leaves.
Clear away the remains of the summer crops and dig ground as it becomes vacant. Harvest all
remaining marrows and pumpkins and store in a frost-proof area. Any green tomatoes should be gathered in and placed in a drawer where they will slowly ripen until Christmas. Start checking through vegetables in store as part of a winter routine.
Plant a row of early peas (such as ‘Meteor’ or ‘Feltham First’). These will crop up to a month earlier than those sown the following spring. Plant roots of mint with soil in boxes in the cold greenhouse or frame. Kept in light conditions, a continuous supply of fresh leaves will be provided through the winter.
Celery and leeks should be earthed up. Harvest the roots of horseradish. Collect the seeds of runner beans and dwarf French beans, when the pods have turned brown and are fully dry.