Autumn is a great time to show pests the cold shoulder as you clear up plant debris and piles of pots in the garden. Here's what I do.
First, though, it's true. Autumn is starting to make its way across the country. There are conkers, blackberries and some leaves are turning colour. The swallows and house martins are collecting and thinking very seriously about flying south; the swifts have mostly gone now.
I know, I know but it's time to at least start thinking about getting ready for the colder winter months.
Strike a balance
I try to strike a balance between tidying and leaving some bits of the garden more ragged and wild. Good gardening is always about balance.
I dig up annuals and remove decaying vegetation from other plants, and put it all in the compost bin. I don’t cut back perennials hard until March as some leaves on the crown will protect them from frost. Anyway, the seed heads of some perennials look wonderful in the autumn and winter, and they shelter overwintering insects.
I rake up leaves and make leaf mould.
I weed two areas thoroughly so the birds can turn the soil over with their beaks and eat any grubs they find.
The first area is around fruit trees. That's because the many species of winter moth have wingless females that emerge from pupae in the soil and crawl up trunks to lay eggs on branches between November and April. Their caterpillars eat holes in the leaves, blossom and developing fruitlets of many tree fruits, ornamental trees and shrubs. Severe attacks can weaken plants.
The other area is the vegetable plot so birds find and eat slugs, cutworms and grubs of onion fly, beet leaf miner and carrot fly. Digging the plot over will help the frost break down the clods into a good tilth.
Elsewhere I focus on getting rid of annual weed seedlings like chickweed, nettle and opium poppy, and pernicious perennial weeds such as couch grass, bindweed, dandelions and ground elder. I leave seedlings of biennial flowering plants as they will provide flowers in the spring for beneficial insects, which help to keep common pests under control.
I keep some rough areas in the garden where wildlife can overwinter. Frogs and toads and newts. Hedgehogs. Bees. Slow worms. A Red Admiral butterfly or two. Ground beetles. If you find any creatures when you’re working in an area that really has to be tidied up, give them a day or so to move. They’ll be gone when you come back. I don’t mind some nettles which attract aphid predators, like ladybirds and lacewings. Nettles attract a species of greenfly that provides food for early ladybird and hoverfly larvae which then move on to eat other insect pests.
I clear any plant debris out of the greenhouse, and disinfect the paths, staging and inside of the glass with a garden disinfectant.
I tidy up between old slates and plant pots, ideal places for snails to cuddle up and hibernate peacefully. Slugs don’t hibernate and can be found anywhere where there is a temperature over 5°C, so I keep my bucket of salted water handy.
And finally, a word in your ear about earwigs.
Until late summer these insects are a garden friend, eating aphids and other small insects. By September, though, they start to nibble the flowers and young leaves of dahlias, clematis and chrysanthemums, and some fruit. The best way of dealing with them is a trap. Place upturned flower pots loosely stuffed with hay or straw on canes among plants being attacked, and every morning shake out the pots and remove the earwigs.
Enjoy clearing up your garden in the autumn. It’s a pleasant way of spending a warm day and you’ll feel good about giving those pests a cold shoulder before winter.
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