Durban – Many people believe that this is a quiet time in the garden – but not necessarily so. While the days get cooler and shorter as winter draws nearer, it is a wonderful time to get physical in your garden.
It is not nearly as hot as summer and digging, pruning and planting are so much easier. There is a lot that can be done in late autumn, and early winter, especially in KwaZulu-Natal as our weather is so mild and plants are still growing (and flowering), albeit at a slower tempo.
It’s time to plant spring-flowering bulbs.
Though they take some time from planting before they flower, nothing says “spring” quite like a bulb, which seems to come from nothing yet bursts forth in full, colourful bloom.
Choose from a wide variety of bulbs – all are suitable for colder areas with frost, but some do remarkably well on the coast. Ranunculi, anemones, muscari and leucojum all do well, as do daffodils in part shade.
Paper-white narcissus and hyacinths are very worthwhile in containers and pots.
Remember to water bulbs well. Our climate (especially on the coast) is not cold enough.
All your winter and spring-flowering seedlings or bedding plants should be planted in these months. The mild weather allows for a huge selection of varieties to be planted. This is the best and most colourful time of the year for flowering annuals, and the list is endless.
The possible checklist of uses for winter and spring seedlings is also nearly endless – window boxes, tubs and pots, garden beds, hanging baskets etc can be a blaze of colour that will brighten any winter’s day. Try alyssum and lobelia for trailing plants in pots and baskets, while all the “P”s (pansies, petunias, primulas, poppies and phlox) make delightful shows, and come in a mind-boggling choice of colours and varieties.
Other popular choices are snapdragons, begonia, calendula, nemesia, marigolds and viola.
Remember all annuals are designed to grow, flower and die in one season, so it is important to make sure that they really grow at their best, by ensuring that they are well fed and watered.
Prepare the soil well, digging in compost as required. Feed regularly (once a week), pick off the dead flower heads to prevent them “going to seed”, water adequately, and you will be rewarded with months of colour.
There is arguably no more soul-inspiring sight in the garden than a bougainvillea in full bloom, and now is the time when they flower at their best – often with few or no leaves to detract from the masses of flowers. Bougainvilleas are very versatile and can be grown in tubs, hanging baskets, or on banks, as hedges and over pergolas.
They flower at least twice a year. Ask your nurseryman how to tip-prune to contain and shape it’s growth and promote flowering. They need full sun and regular feeding. Go easy on the watering as it is drought stress that gets them flowering – if in doubt, leave it out.
Some azaleas and camellias also flower at this time – the sasanqua camellias and dwarf azaleas both flower in May/June.
There is a wide choice of aloes and azaleas at nurseries, but you may have to search a bit for camellias. As we do not really receive a lot of rain at this time of year, you may wish to apply a mulch of bark, pine needles or leaves around your plants. This conserves moisture, suppresses weeds and keeps the soil temperature constant. All this makes for much better growth.
This time is also ideal for getting stuck in to some “hard landscaping” such as building pathways, patios, rockeries etc, as the weather is pleasant and dependable now, and your hard work will be rewarded in spring.
If you have a pond or water feature try adding coarse salt to the water to prevent algae, frogs and mosquitoes. You will not be able to grow any plants in the salty water. Most fish will not tolerate very salty water, but some can take some salt – check at your local pet shop.
Winter always brings a shortage of seeds and other food for birds in your garden, so now is the ideal time to put up a bird feeder or feeding table. Locate it close to a tree or dense shrub to offer a refuge for the smaller birds, but also where you can see it easily.
Be aware that some of the cheaper birdseed mixes contain types that your birds will not eat, so you are not saving anything. Experiment with different brands until you find one that is liked the best by your birds.
Remember to put out some fruit as well, for the many fruit-eating birds that will also be attracted. The fruit will attract fruit flies which will attract insect eating birds as well.
Now is also a good time to mulch your garden. Falling autumn leaves make a good mulch – just do not apply them too thickly. Bark chips also work well, and are ornamental.
The cooler weather now means that the range of vegetables that can be grown has expanded considerably. Lettuces, peas, cauliflowers, cabbages, broccoli and Brussels sprouts all prefer cooler weather. There are new varieties of purple-headed cauliflower, multicoloured swiss chard, and purple carrots which may be worth a try.
For salads try a few edible flowers for decoration – calendula, pansy and viola can all be used.
Thankfully, weeds tend to grow a bit slower now.
If your lawn still has lots of weeds, apply a weed killer now (ask your nurseryman for a type to suit your grass).
They work really well and are easy to apply. Weeding by hand is time-consuming, expensive and often counter-productive as all the bits you leave behind multiply. As before, mow your lawn long, as blades are the food factory, and the grass needs to build itself up for winter.
It is a good idea to feed your lawn with a high potassium fertiliser (eg 5:1:5 or 3:1:6) as this will strengthen the cell walls of the grass and make them tough to withstand the winter.
It is how well your lawn goes into winter that largely determines how well it emerges in spring – a weak lawn equals lots of weeds (as they “wake up” before the lawn gets growing).