Plant trees now, and celebrate Apple Day!

First published by Rattan Direct on 21 October 2016.

Trees have so many benefits that if they didn’t exist we’d have to invent them! Plant one this year to enjoy next year. And 21st October is Apple Day, celebrating the hundreds of apple varieties that grow in this country.

Beech and spruce tree canopies in Malý Blaník Nature Reserve, Benešov District, Czech Republic. Trees
Beech and spruce tree canopies in Malý Blaník Nature Reserve, Benešov District, Czech Republic. © Juan de Vojníkov and published under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

The many benefits of trees

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

When Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote this sonnet she could have been writing of trees and the benefits they offer.

Above all, beauty.

And trees play a part in:

  • ecosystems and microclimates
  • cooling by providing shade
  • warming by protecting against cold winds>

They contribute to our:

  • health
  • relaxation and calm
  • enjoyment
  • gardens
  • community wellbeing.

They help to:

  • link us to past and future generations
  • define space and screen unattractive views
  • reduce erosion
  • save money.

They give us:

  • fruit
  • nuts
  • firewood
  • timber.

Indeed, without trees we’d be a bit stuck. So if you can, plant a tree for next year – even in a pot.

How to plant a tree or large shrub

Prepare the ground

Trees grow well where the soil contains some air and is not too wet nor too dry. Prepare your tree planting hole with four simple steps.

  1. If you are planting in the lawn think about mowing: circles are easier to mow around, but square holes are better for roots. Go wild – dig a square hole but remove turfs to make a circle around it.
  2. Dig a hole that is slightly deeper than the pot or rootball of the tree, and over an area at least three times as wide.
  3. Break up the sides of the hole with a strong fork so the roots can get into the surrounding soil.
  4. Dig in a bucketful of well rotted garden compost

Small and young trees don’t need staking unless they are in very windy sites. If you need a stake plant it very firmly at least 20cm/8in from where the trunk will be.

Plant it

  1. Soak the tree in its pot or soak a bare-rooted tree in a bucket of water for about 30 minutes before you remove it from its pot or wrapping.
  2. Loosen any roots that have become crammed together in pots and spread out the roots of bare-root trees.
  3. Holding the tree upright, place it carefully into the planting hole so that the very top layer of roots are level with the soil surface when you have filled the hole. You may need to scrape away top layers of compost on container grown plants to find the top roots. Don’t plant the tree any lower – it will be vulnerable to disease.
  4. If your soil is poor, throw a handful of mycorrhizal fungi (e.g. Rootgrow) over and in contact with the roots.
  5. Refill the planting hole carefully, placing soil between and around all the roots.
  6. Firm the soil gently, avoiding compacting the soil into a hard mass, and water it in well.

Have a look at this YouTube clip for more advice.

A Chinese proverb is always a good way to end. The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

Apple Day

Many, many different types of apples grow in this country. Hundreds of them. There are eaters. There are cookers. There are dual-purpose apples. And there are cider apples. Oh, and crab apples.

Their colour, shape, size and taste vary. Their names are those of old friends or new friends to be discovered and made. One variety is actually called Discovery. And meet Annie Elizabeth (she’s lovely), Beauty of Bath, James Grieve (we go back a long way), Blenheim Orange, Bardsey and Lord Derby. Can I introduce you to Charles Ross (I’ve known him since I was little), Bloody Ploughman and Lemon Pippin? Also Scotch Bridget and Reverend W. Wilks.

Supermarket shopping rather narrows the focus with regard to apples. Apple Day pulls in the opposite direction, broadening horizons and introducing us to all kinds of apples that grow locally.

Colwall Quoining. One of many varieties of apples on display at Colwall's 2011 Apple Day, Herefordshire. Trees
Colwall Quoining. One of many varieties of apples on display at Colwall’s 2011 Apple Day, Herefordshire. © Bob Embleton and published under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence

Apple Day is 21st October but really it’s a moveable feast, reflecting different harvest times from year to year, and from place to place. (Where I live, the 2016 harvest is two weeks later than usual.) Apple events in some areas go on all month.

Apples are for chutneys, jellies and pies, for eating with pork and bacon, for fruit juice, cider and calvados. Enjoy!


Clip Virginia creeper and other late autumn gardening jobs

First published by Rattan Direct on 19 October 2016.

Virginia creeper has started to cover the windows so the next few weeks are the time to clip it back. It’s also time to ‘renovate’ tangled climbing and rambling roses. Keep an eye on the weather, too, and protect your plants if frost is forecast.

Penrhyn Castle, near Bangor, Gwynedd. Virginia creeper
Penrhyn Castle, near Bangor, Gwynedd. Do they use ladders or do they abseil down to clear the Virginia creeper from the windows here? © Denis Egan, published under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence

Autumn is definitely with us now and I’m scrambling to get jobs done before the weather turns nasty. Like all of us, I’m busy but I know that if I don’t get these jobs done I’ll regret it.

Clip back the Virginia creeper so you can see out of the windows

You probably know Virginia creeper, a vigorous large deciduous climber whose leaves turn bright red and orange in the autumn. It grows very high, more than 12 metres according to the Royal Horticultural Society, and it grows so vigorously that windows can be quickly veiled by the leaves. It will soon be time to cut it back so that you can see out again, and more light can come into the house over the autumn and winter. (Or you could leave it till early spring.) It’s a two-person job if you’re working at height on ladders or with ropes.

Renovate climbing and rambling roses

My rambling rose, Félicité et Perpétue, has been sadly neglected for a number of years. I offer no excuses; it’s just one of those things that sometimes happen in a life and a garden.

It’s grown enthusiastically and has become very tangled. Often roses in a tangle don’t flower very well and although this hasn’t happened to F&P yet, it’s only a matter of time and I’d like a mass of flowers next summer.

Early August is the time for light pruning. Late autumn and early winter is the time to ‘renovate’ climbing and rambling roses as you can see their structure more clearly when they’ve lost their leaves. Renovation will boost the plant ready for flowering next year and is good for disease prevention, as more air and light can get to the plant.

The Royal Horticultural Society gives the same advice for renovating both climbing roses and rambling roses, given here in brief.

  1. Remove all dead, diseased, dying and weak shoots.
  2. Cut some of the old woody branches to the ground, retaining a maximum of six young, vigorous stems that can be secured to supports.
  3. Saw away any dead stumps at the base of the plant, where rain can collect and encourage rot.
  4. Shorten side shoots on the remaining branches and prune back the tips by one third to one half, to encourage branching.
  5. Give pruned plants a boost in the following spring by spreading a granular rose fertiliser over the soil and mulch them with a 5cm (2in) layer of garden compost or well rotted manure.

It’s not quite late autumn/early winter yet, so I’m giving myself fair warning that this has to be done!

Finally frost

Back at the beginning of September we started to talk about protecting plants from frost. Some of us have seen temperatures down to zero already, so watch the weather and make sure everything is protected if frost is forecast.

Good luck with keeping on top of the garden before bad weather starts in earnest.


Crab apples – choices for an autumn WOW!

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 16 October 2016.

Autumn fruits and berries are vibrant in gardens and hedgerows now. This week crab apples became one of my favourites: crab apples in yellow, orange, crimson and maroon are perfect cheer for autumn days. And they make wonderful jelly: so, what’s not to like?

I would like one in my garden. Which variety? And how to choose? Try this one of many websites that can help you choose one for yours. Here are some of the things to consider.

Choosing crab apple trees


These are The Thing now. Cheerful red, such as ‘Red Sentinel’, or bright and light yellow ‘Butterball’ . Fruits vary in size too: small and berry like on ‘Floribunda’ or the size of plums on ‘John Downie’.

crab apples
Malus John Downie – gorgeous to look at, and to make jellies: there is a quick recipe at the end of this blog.


In a garden many years ago I planted ‘Malus Floribunda’. It is also called ‘showy crab apple’ and the flowers were certainly a show stopper: soft pink with darker centres and so many that the tree looked as if it was covered in foam. Or try the dark red flowers that smother ‘Malus Cardinal’.

Leaf colour

The bronze leaves of ‘Malus Royalty’ are stunning from spring to autumn when deep red fruits add a shine. More common are the soft green leaves like ‘Malus Golden Hornet’ which make a great background to the fruit.

Shape and size

Some are upright and neat – great for a small space. Others spread into umbrella  or weeping shapes. These need more room for the best effect and can create a large area of dry ground underneath (no problem: plant bulbs for spring and autumn and ground cover plants there!). A decision on where the tree will be dictates the size and shape the garden can manage, but I do love the spreading look of ‘Malus Louisa’.

Whatever I choose, I need a tree on a ‘dwarfing rootstock’ (which means it won’t grow huge) for the garden spot I have in mind. Others will grow to 5 or 6 m high – lovely if you have the space.

What next?

There is no rush. I will keep looking at gardens and parks, visit garden centres and browse online catalogues. If I buy a pot grown tree I can plant it any time. But a bare root tree must be planted when the tree is dormant (the leaves and fruit have fallen and the tree has stopped growing for the winter). For crab apples that is between late October and early March, and I like to choose a time when the ground is soft and damp.

crab apples
Crab apples near Glewstone. Jonathan Billinger. Geograph 978786. Reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

And a nice idea as I write this blog – the crab apple ‘Wedding Bouquet’ has masses of ivory-white blossom in spring, and small dark red fruits in autumn. A perfect wedding present any time of year!

A recipe for crab apple jelly

  1. Wash and chop about 2kg unmarked apples in half.
  2. In a saucepan (not aluminium) just cover them with water and bring to the boil.
  3. Simmer until the fruit is soft (how long this takes depends on the amount of apples, but reckon on 30 – 40 minutes).
  4. Remove from the heat and mash the fruit down. Carefully pour the pulp into a jelly bag and let it drip overnight into a steel, glass or plastic container (not aluminium).
  5. Do NOT squeeze the bag: that will make the juice and the jelly go cloudy.
  6. Measure the juice and for every 600ml of juice, add 450gm of warmed white granulated sugar in a good sized pan. Heat gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
  7. Boil rapidly for 10 minutes, or until setting point is reached.
  8. To test for setting point put 2 or 3 teaspoons of the jelly on a saucer in the fridge for 5 minutes. Run your finger over the top of the jelly: if a skin has formed that wrinkles with your finger the jelly has reached setting point. If not, keep boiling and try again.
  9. At setting point, remove the jelly from the heat and let it stand for about 5 minutes. Pour into sterilized jars, adding wax covers and lids and store in a cool dry place.
  10. Enjoy this taste of autumn with scones and cream, on breakfast toast or when adding marzipan to rich fruit cakes.

Autumn preparations for winter in the garden: part 3!

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 14 October 2016.

Never mind spring cleaning – autumn preparations are essential to protect your garden from the worst of winter. Use our top tips to guide you.

Autumn preparations: tidy up

I am still picking runner beans, and glad of suggestions for what to do with a glut. Within a week or two I will be sad they have ended. One school of thought suggests I leave my runner and climbing French bean plants in the ground until the frosts because until then they will go on fixing nitrogen in the soil – a good thing. Another school says TIDY UP as soon as the last bean is picked. Either way, autumn preparations will require you to cut the plants down, chop them up and put the choppings and roots firmly in your garden compost store.

The same goes for other veg. and flowering plants that are past their best. Even a late spell of sunshine now won’t give you much pleasure, and it is so much nicer working in the garden in autumn sunshine than in winter rain.

Autumn preparations: dig and mulch

Where you tidied up veg. and other short lived plants, dig over the soil with a good fork to loosen it and pull out the weeds. Throw a good layer of well rotted garden compost where you have dug. It will rot more during autumn and winter, help stop the rain compacting the soil or washing it away. And you are ready to dig it in to plant veg. and flowers in the spring and early summer.

Friends living in areas of mild winter weather sow ‘green manure’ on bare winter soil to protect and feed it. Try it if your climate is suitable.

autumn preparations
Compost bins at Potterton’s allotments, East Warwick, showing good lids to keep them warm. Robin Stott. Geograph 4050830. Reuse under Creative Commons licence.

Autumn preparations: keep it warm

Your compost store likes to be warm in winter (don’t we all?). Firm the contents down well, and put a lid on it. Purpose-built compost stores usually have tight fitting lids that keep the warmth in to help the materials rot. If yours doesn’t have a lid make one from carpet, wood or sacks.

Plants you know are tender, or have been advised to protect from cold winds and damp, need to be prepared now for their winter coats. Cut off damaged leaves and any top heavy growth that won’t look good next year, clear weeds and leaves from the bottom of the plant and leave a clean and drier base. Different plants like different wrappings so follow the instructions that came with your plant. Don’t forget to tie the covering firmly or the wind will whip it off and damage the plant in the process.

autumn preparations
Tree fern in a winter coat, Kew gardens. David Hawgood. Geography 1088968. Creative Commons licence for reuse

Autumn preparations: keep it dry

Feet (or even bricks) under your lovely patio pots will keep plant roots out of water that will rot them or freeze the base of the pot.

Spread a little gravel around the base of Mediterranean plants, succulents and plants that love to be baked by the sun. It will stop muck and damp collecting there and rotting the stem or roots.

All preparations done? Time for a sit down and a coffee in a warm conservatory or orangery (see our blog to find out more!).

Wind? Be prepared with part 2 of preparing for autumn tips

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 12 October 2016.

You are ready for autumn rains (if not – read last week’s blog), be prepared for wind with our top tips, and read more at the RHS.

Be prepared for wind

Autumn (and winter) winds mean wobbly plants, and leaves burned by the wind or stripped from their stems. Southerly (warmer) winds are unusual where I live, but a strong wind from any direction is shock and awe to young shrubs and tender plants wherever they are.

Being prepared for autumn winds is especially important because the weight of full leaf cover and rain on the leaves can create a top-heavy plant, easily broken by wind. Have you looked out one morning to see a much loved plant snapped in two? It won’t be anything like Hurricane Matthew here but some weather forecasters reckon the UK is in for a windy winter, so be prepared.

Wind damage in the garden can cost a fortune if sheds and fences need repairs. And flying fences will break your precious plants too  – all that effort to create a lovely garden wrecked. Fixing wobbly boards and loose roofing now makes sense. Take time to check that everything is as it should be: fence panels are secure, wall and garden trellises are firmly fixed, arches and obelisks are all upright and not bending with the wind and shed roofs are waterproof and firm.

be prepared for wind
Salle Hall, a sturdy garden arch at the entrance to the kitchen garden. Evelyn Simak. Geograph 935467. Reuse under Creative Commons licence.

All this sounds fussy? Not at all. To be prepared is quicker and easier – after all, we know this weather is coming – than to clear up afterwards. And a bit of garden DIY on a sunny autumn day uses your skills and works up an appetite for an early supper. (Read our blog on alfresco dining for ideas on keeping your patio warm enough for outdoor autumn suppers.)

Toward the end of October the national home safety month resources will offer ideas and advice on how to make sure the outside of your house and garden are safe and secure – and not just from wind damage. If you can’t wait, read the home safety team’s January blog and tackle your garden repairs with kit from a local garden centre or DIY superstore.

Stake it out!

  • Make sure young trees and shrubs are tied carefully and firmly to stakes that are themselves firm in the ground. If you don’t, strong winds can disturb the roots and rock the plants so much that they keel over.
  • Cut down by at least half the tall summer growth on herbaceous plants such as delphinium and heliopsis and rudbeckia so that winds don’t whip them into a mush.
  • Stake, or cut down, your lovely tall sunflowers. If you cut them down, put the heads on a bird table to feed garden birds.
be prepared
Sunflowers. Gerald England. Geograph 4307092. Creative commons licence for reuse

Happy days of garden DIY next weekend?

Sedum spectabile brings Autumn Joy: colour, bees and butterflies

First published by Rattan Direct on 9 October 2016.

The ice plant, Sedum spectabile, is a magnet in autumn for beautiful and beneficial insects like red admiral butterflies and bees. I like the variety ‘Autumn Joy’, a wonderful rose pink in colour.

My garden plans went awry

Today we are looking at the wonderful Sedum spectabile, sometimes called showy stonecrop, ice plant or butterfly stonecrop.*

Once upon a time, I had a plan to edge a border with Sedum spectabile. Specifically ‘Autumn Joy’. The reason was that I wanted to attract bees and butterflies to my garden (and I still do) and it’s an excellent and attractive plant for this. It has light green leaves and starry flowers which open from greenish-pink buds, and change rapidly from pale to deep rose.

S. spectabile Autumn Joy's green, then pink buds. Autumn Joy
S. spectabile Autumn Joy’s green, then pink buds

I started well but Life had other plans, as so often seems to happen, and the border had to drop down the priority list for quite some time. ‘Autumn Joy’ became pushed out by other, more thuggish plants. Bear’s breeches, Acanthus mollis, I’m looking at you.

Happily, things have changed again and the spectacular spectabile (it means ‘showy’) border is once more on the cards. A few ‘Autumn Joy’ plants have survived in that area of the garden and they are a magnet for insects. These are insects of the beautiful and beneficial kind like red admiral and small tortoiseshell butterflies which lift the spirits in the autumn, and industrious bees going about their business.

Small tortoiseshell on ice plant, near Biddulph, Staffordshire. Autumn Joy
Small tortoiseshell on ice plant, near Biddulph, Staffordshire
© Seo Mise and published under Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 2.0.

Oh no!

This summer I’ve been quite virtuous in mowing the lawn. I have a push mower without a grass box and using it can be a good workout in itself. And then I have to rake up the clippings with a spring-tine rake. I have one word to say to you: abs.

It’s hard work, especially if the grass has grown long, as it loves to do when the weather is s wet and warm. Anyway, one day I was pushing away with the mower in a particularly difficult area of lawn and found, oh no!, that I’d knocked off a chunk of ‘Autumn Joy’. Even more upsetting was that I realised that, this year, I seem to have far fewer AJ plants than I used to, once upon a time.

Grow new ‘Autumn Joy’ plants – it’s easy

To cut a long story short, the cloud had a silver lining. I used the broken-off piece of plant as a cutting. All I did was:

  • tidy it up a bit by cutting the end off neatly and cutting off the lower leaves
  • put it in a pot of some gritty compost
  • placed it in the cold frame in the garden.

(Do not think that the cold frame is a magnificent piece of garden equipment because it isn’t. It’s a fairly pleasant box which used to be a kitchen cabinet. It has glass doors which fit nicely over the top in cooler weather, perched on battens of wood to allow ventilation.)

The cutting ‘struck’, as we gardeners say. That means it rooted well. And it has gone on to grow well. I potted it on into a larger pot and now it’s flowering like mad. Why haven’t you planted it out in the border, I hear you ask. Because that border hasn’t been sorted out yet…  Pressure of work, other responsibilities, this and that. But it will get done and the border will eventually be my dream edged with S. spectabile from one end to the other, struck from cuttings by me. And butterflies and bees will flock to it.

S. spectabile 'Brilliant'. Autumn Joy
S. spectabile ‘Brilliant’
By Rob Hille. Public domain

* Old friend Sedum spectabile has been reclassified and renamed recently although its old name lives on. It now sometimes flies under the name of Hylotelephium spectabile, but it’s still a member of the stonecrop family and it still brings autumn joy to all who know it.

Yet more about the excellence of this herbaceous perennial here.

Houseplants: how to care for them over the winter

First published by Rattan Direct on 7 October 2016.

Houseplants need special care over the winter when the temperature and light levels drop. Pelargoniums also have particular care needs. We tell you what to do so that your plants make it through.

Come inside out of the cold

Houseplants that have been outside for a summer holiday should be back indoors now. Most plants will be slowing down now, and some will become dormant. That’s because, from late autumn to early spring, there’s less light around.

Make sure your plants get as much natural light as possible

If you can, move your houseplants into a sunny conservatory or porch to give them light from different directions. A west or south-facing windowsill is good. And clean your windows inside and out to max the light. (I definitely must do this.)

Gradually reduce watering, and stop feeding

Dormant plants need very little water and no food so gradually reduce watering to once a fortnight or when the compost is almost dry. Check carefully on plants near radiators or fires.

Succulents only need water every two to three weeks, and cacti need none at all in winter.

If you give houseplants too much water in the winter they will either produce weak growth or rot and you don’t want either.

Plants growing vigorously, or flowering like Christmas cacti and poinsettias, are not dormant so they should be watered when the compost feels dry.

The Christmas or Lenten rose (Helleborus niger). Houseplants
The Christmas or Lenten rose (Helleborus niger)
By Motmel and released into the public domain.

Clean their leaves

Plants that have been outside have enjoyed rain showers cleaning off their leaves. Their indoor friends haven’t been so lucky. Light is already limited now and dirt on the leaf reduces the amount of light reaching its surface even more, making it very hard for plants to photosynthesise food. Wipe off dust regularly with a damp cloth, or give the plant a gentle lukewarm shower for five minutes or so.

Keeping Goldilocks Houseplants at just the right temperature

  1. Houseplants don’t like big changes in temperature: 12-18C is just right (a little too cool for most of us in the winter).
  2. They don’t like it too hot. Keep them away from open fires and radiators, and move them out of overheated rooms.
  3. They don’t like it too cold. Don’t leave them on the windowsill behind the curtains as this traps them in cold air all night.
  4. They don’t like draughts. Make sure they aren’t near open windows or doors.
  5. Tropical plants especially don’t like dry air; they need the atmosphere to be humid. Place them on a tray of damp gravel or mist them daily. Group plants together to create a humid microclimate around their leaves.

Pest inspection

Plant pests love being inside in the warm over the winter and take the opportunity to breed. Check all of your plants thoroughly for pests, but especially check plants that spent the summer outside. Look at both sides of the leaves, and remove any pests you find. Keep checking throughout the winter.

Keeping pelargoniums over the winter


If you’d like to carry your pelargoniums on to next year you have three, perhaps four, overwintering choices:

  • take cuttings and grow them on indoors or in the shed or greenhouse
  • overwinter plants in containers in greenhouses or garden frames or a sunny shed windowsill
  • overwinter in a semi-dormant state, giving them a complete rest, somewhere cool, dark and frost-free.

More from the Royal Horticultural Society about overwintering pelargoniums, and from Dr Hessayon.

There is a fourth choice – to keep them going as they are! Zonal pelargoniums will flower as long as there is good light and the temperature is at least 7-10°C. I mentioned my local café’s all-year-round pelargoniums in an earlier post. My co-blogger has a three year old pelargonium on a kitchen windowsill that just keeps on going. Don’t overwater them and their flowers will brighten the darker days. Cut them back to new shoots and feed them in the spring, ready for the new season’s growth.

Good luck!


Autumn rains! Be prepared in the garden (1)

First published by Rattan Direct on 5 October 2016.

Autumn rains and gales mean it makes sense to clear drainpipes and guttering. We want water directed into the drains and not coming into the house. It’s garden hygiene time: clear up leaves, moss and other bits and pieces, and clean out the water butt.

Silver birch, Conwy. Autumn rains
Silver birch, Conwy, October 2015
M K Stone

Autumn rains

Autumn rains have been upon us already. And they will be again. That’s nothing unusual as there are always strong gales and rains around the equinox (22 September 2016) as many a sea shanty will tell you.

Water can do a lot of damage in the wrong place so it’s clearly time to check all outside water pipes and fittings. And vegetation broken free from its moorings and resting out of place will rot over the next few months, and form a black sludge in the corner of your patio or at the bottom of your pond. Clean it up and out, and do the water butt too.

Clear the debris

By ‘the debris’ I mean things like:

  • Lumps of moss on the roof and in the gutters. (There are two schools of thought about composting moss. I am of the ‘do not do this at home’ school and I put it in the bin for the council to compost at high temperatures.)
  • Leaves and other bits and pieces in the garden which will harbour pests (like snail eggs, for example) and diseases through the winter unless you clear them up.
  • Creeping tendrils of Clematis montana, long gone from the neighbour’s garden but somehow still making an appearance in the gutters and under the slates.
Clematis at the Grange, near Heythrop, Oxfordshire. Autumn rains
Clematis at the Grange, near Heythrop, Oxfordshire
© Michael Dibb and licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0

Clean out your water butt

Autumn is the best time to clean out your water butt. Scrub it clean with soap and water, rinse and then refill it or let it refill from the downpipe. Make sure it has a light-proof cover which will suppress any green algae. Clean water is essential for seedlings (but less important for well established plants).

Clear debris out of your pond too. And put a net over it to stop leaves getting in.

Check gutters and downpipes

Check the gutters for any obstructions. Clumps of grass or young buddleia are possible culprits, along with leaves and moss which we talked about earlier.

Check whether the downpipes or their hoppers are clogged up.

Railway bridge, Penge High Street: vegetation growing in the hopper rainhead. Autumn rains
Railway bridge, Penge High Street: vegetation growing in the hopper rainhead
© Christopher Hilton and licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0

Check they haven’t come adrift from their fixings on the wall and that their joints are sound.

I know that, here, animals use the joint where one downpipe runs into another pipe as a stepping stone, and it regularly comes loose. After I finish writing this, I plan to wrestle the joint back into position, drill a hole and keep it together with a small screw.

It’s worth it

A few checks and a bit of work will pay off. Autumn rains can be heavy and persistent, as most of us have found out already this year.


Autumn colours to add to your garden

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 2 October 2016.

Woods, gardens and parks are changing from shades of green to autumn colours of rich red, yellow and bronze. They are breathtaking. Last week the Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time panel were asked which plant, shrub or tree they most look forward to seeing in their autumn colour. Interesting answers set me thinking about which tree or shrub I would plant to give my garden the WOW factor of fantastic autumn colours.

Why do green leaves change colour?

A substance called chlorophyll in leaves makes them green (and able to absorb energy from the sun). Less sunlight and cooler days break the chlorophyll down and this reveals other colourful pigments: autumn colours are here. This BBC Weather post goes further and explains more – watch it now and impress your children!

I like this Forestry Commission description of how and why green leaves turn red and orange – it is a must see, and colourful too!

So which tree will create autumn colours in my garden for years to come?

A small tree will grace most gardens, so my first choice is a Japanese maple. Acer palmatum ‘Osakazuki’ and ‘sango-kaku’ (or the coral bark maple) are my favourites. But Acer japonicum varieties are a good choice because they are less fussy than Acer palmatum varieties. All Acers prefer soils that are acid, and trees in sheltered spots and light shade offer the best leaf colours. Mine will be planted in a sheltered corner in view of my kitchen window. And because these trees grow well in pots, read our blog and plant one in a pot in the corner of a patio. Roll on next autumn!.

autumn colours
The leaf colour of this Japanese maple is beginning to change. Tomorrow it will be red! Sarah Buchanan

At the end of the garden a ‘spindle tree’, properly called Euonymous europaeus, would be an easy addition. In summer it is not impressive, but in autumn the leaves turn to fire and the berries are stunning. The wood of this tree is said to have been used to make spindles, and I am told that it is the tree on which Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger (not a rose thorn at all). It is not hard to make the link, for every part of this little tree is poisonous if eaten. It is a stunning autumn shrub or small tree and the flame red leaves and berries would enhance many gardens.


autumn colours
The poisonous but pretty spindle tree berries are a must for autumn colour. Sarah Buchanan


If I had room for a larger tree I would go for Cercidiphyllum japonicum (or Katsura tree). This lovely tree offers wonderful autumn colours of yellow, pink, orange and red and as a bonus fills the garden with the scent of burnt sugar and toffee apples! It does best in some shelter and shade.

Gardeners with lots of space could plant a Liquidambar styraciflua (the ‘sweet gum’ tree) in any of its varieties. It has maple-shaped leaves which in autumn are fantastic oranges and reds. Top tip on this tree is to buy it in the autumn when you can see the leaf colour.

If you are tempted, but not sure what to plant, go out and enjoy autumn colours near you and find trees and shrubs that you like, and which will like your garden. This lovely BBC video of autumn leaves will inspire you to go for a walk in the woods, parks or gardens near you every weekend until the leaves fall. Take the kids! The Forestry Commission website has great ideas for things to do to make the most of autumn, and offers an online activity pack for children. Sign up now!

And if you’re looking for autumn colours, this Daily Telegraph must see list might help.

It is just too good to stay indoors. I might see you out there somewhere …

Divide plants to create new plants for family and friends

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 30 September 2016.

Free plants are a bit of a thing of mine. You know – you have read my blogs before! Here’s how to divide plants in your garden to create new ones. You could swap them with plants from neighbours and family, or plant them in new places in your garden.

Autumn to spring, and when the soil is not too wet, is the time to divide herbaceous perennials which grow in clumps and which flower in spring or summer. Doing this every three or four years helps keep the plant healthy and vigorous. And you can do it more often to create new plants.

What is a herbaceous perennial?

Perennial plants are plants which go on and on. Unlike annuals which last one year; and biennials which grow in one year, flower the next and then die. Herbaceous perennials are plants such as geraniums (not pelargoniums), asters or Michaelmas daisies, euphorbia and primroses.

divide plants
This geranium is ideal to divide into two or even three good-sized plants. For free! Sarah Buchanan

What tools do I need to divide plants?

Before you start, check out which plants look overcrowded, or are outgrowing the space where you want them and decide which plants you want to create more of.

Then, you will need:

  • two garden forks (read on to find out why two)
  • a spade or sharp lawn edging tool
  • good garden compost or soil to fill in the gaps you make
  • pots for your new plants if you are giving them away
  • water to settle both the new plants in their new home and the old one where it is.

How do I divide plants?

For small plants, such as heuchera and epimedium, push a garden fork gently under the centre of the plant and ease it up. Shake off the soil so you can see the roots.  Pull clumps of plant growth at the edge of the plant away – these are your new plants. Put the main plant back into the soil, fill in around it with good garden compost, firm the soil and ensure the plant is stable, and water well.

divide plants
Divide epimediums by lifting the plant gently and pulling clumps of new plants away. Sarah Buchanan

Larger plants need more action. Insert two forks back to back into the centre of the plant. Push the handle of each fork out toward the edge of the plant, so that you split the plant in two. Put one section back where it was growing, filling in the space you made with good garden compost, firm that down and water well. Plant your new plant where you want it and water it well.

Plants with woody centres (such as hellebore) or fleshy roots (such as delphinium) need to be cut in two (or more) sections. Press a sharp spade or lawn edging tool into the centre of the plant and firmly down through the plant and its roots. Insert a garden fork at the edge of the plant and ease one section up and away from the other. Fill in the space you have made with good garden compost, firm the plant in and water well. Plant your new plant where you want it to grow with good garden compost and water.

You can’t go wrong!

If in doubt, watch this Gardeners’ World video or follow the step-by-step guide in the RHS advice notes.