Buried treasure: tulip bulbs ready to be planted. Photograph: Tricia de Courcy Ling /Alamy
The autumn rains have transformed our ground again. We put the hoe away for winter. My wellingtons are heavy with mud.
Although the gales have pulled the best of the autumn colour, the wind is now my ally in drying the ground. I have to choose my days and juggle my activities. The priorities are digging, to expose the soil to the winter frosts, and planting to make the most of the warmth still held in the ground. Get plants in before the year is out and they will make the root growth they need to sustain them through the worst.
My coldframe groans with plants bought at the autumn fairs. I didn’t have a spare inch left in the car after leaving the Dixter Plant Fair last month and, fired up, I visited a number of other nurseries in swift succession. Seedling sweetbriars and euonymus that were sown this time last year are ready to go out into gaps in the hedgerows. The coldframe is the best place for plants that like to be kept on the dry side over the winter. Although I leave it chocked open to allow air movement, the extra shelter is good for the early bulbs that I grow to keep up my spirits in the winter.
The first of the bare-root trees and shrubs are heeled in with their roots protected from dessication while I work through the other priorities. After planting the last of the tulips, I am moving on to things in pots that would rather be in the ground. Mediterranean calamintha prefer to get their feet in free-draining ground than to sit wet in pots over the coming months. If I can’t get the other perennials in the ground in their final positions, I’ll put them out in the stockbeds rather than leaving them exposed to the lethal combination of too much wet and frost.
Pot luck: move plants like calamintha out of pots and into free-draining soil. Photograph: Sunniva Harte/Getty Images
Over the past few years I have taken to not including compost directly in the planting hole. Bare-root trees and shrubs get just a handful of blood, fish and bone, so that they can make direct contact with the conditions that will become their home. Current thinking goes that you should not make your plants reliant on a pocket of false hope. If you do have soil that is either draining poorly or draining too rapidly, the best option is to improve a wider area with compost evenly forked into the ground.
Most gardeners will not get a plant in the right place straight away. Now is the perfect time to move things that are in the wrong place. Focus on evergreens first, carefully thinning a third of their foliage. This will help alleviate the stress of keeping all their leaves hydrated on a disturbed root system. It will also protect them from wind, which might not always be an ally – especially on days when you want your boots and spade to be lighter.
Short-stake new trees to no more than a third of their stems to allow them to flex. This will stimulate root growth and encourage a ‘muscular’ trunk rather than making them dependent.