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Pot up some winter wonders
7:00am Saturday 15th September 2012 in AdXtra
Add colour to the cooler months and give your patio a burst of brightness with a few seasonal containers - plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week.
By Hannah Stephenson
My container tomatoes have blight, my summer bedding is bedraggled and all my pots are looking a bit forlorn - so there's no better time to cheer myself up with some bright winter candidates.
Autumn and winter don't have to be dull if you have a patio and some pots, because even a pot or two of dainty violas or a mixture of heathers and red-berried evergreens or coloured stems will perk up any outside space.
Autumn leaf colour can be spectacular if you plant one specimen Japanese maple in a pot, such as 'Bloodgood'.
Skimmia 'Rubella' can span three seasons, its fat red buds appearing in autumn and winter and finally opening in spring. Plant it alongside ornamental cabbages and kales, whose leaves provide a rich tapestry of vivid purples and pinks, and you can have a stunning container.
When the sun becomes lower in the sky, arrange your pots in the sunniest corners near windows, where they can be seen from indoors and will provide mutual protection when it's really cold.
Plant containers in autumn with at least one long-lasting scheme, including such stalwarts as heuchera, ivy and skimmia.
Seasonal accent plants including heather and chrysanthemum can also be slipped into the display and removed when you want to change the look, without disturbing the roots of the longer-lasting plants.
When the first frosts arrive, faded heathers can be replaced by Skimmia japonica subsp. reevesiana, which will provide a profusion of red berries, while winter-flowering pansies and cyclamen will add colour to the arrangement.
Permanent plants in pots - such as skimmia and heuchera - are pretty tough and fairly tolerant of weather conditions. Autumn-flowering chrysanthemums such as the compact 'Carnival Bicolour' will bear masses of blooms in September, but will need deadheading regularly to prolong flowering.
Plant them in multi-purpose compost with added John Innes and don't overdo the watering, keeping it limited to around once every two weeks, because waterlogged roots will just rot or freeze.
If you want burnt oranges in autumn, choose double daisy-shaped chrysanthemums in deep bronzes and yellows massed in glazed terracotta pots.
Contemporary brushed metal containers look great in autumn planted with deep purple or chocolate leaves of heucheras such as H. 'Chocolate Ruffles' coupled with silver-leaved evergreens such as Convolvulus cneorum.
Other great specimens for contemporary pots include the tropical-looking Fatsia japonica, with its gloriously glossy leaves, or with dramatic bamboos and ornamental grasses.
Hanging baskets can be planted with an array of foliage plants which provide interest throughout the cooler months, including the Mexican orange blossom (Choisya ternata Sundance), whose bright yellow leaves contrast effectively with the dark foliage of Gaultheria mucronata, which bears brightly coloured berries in shades of white, pink, red or purple.
Male and female plants must be grown together for fruit to form and it's a good plant for winter interest, combining well with other acid-lovers like heathers.
Further colour could be added with violas and variegated euonymus, such as E. fortunei 'Emerald 'n' Gold'.
Deadhead violas to promote a long-lasting display and ease out the stems of the gaultheria to expose the rich berries for all to see.
Thinking ahead, you could also plant some dwarf bulbs in your display including irises, fritillaries and ipheions in pots, using a gritty, free-draining bulb compost, to add a welcome splash of colour and herald the start of spring.
BEST OF THE BUNCH - Hydrangea
Once seen as an outdated, unfashionable shrub, the hydrangea has now come back into its own as gardeners have taken to the more unusual types such as the climbing hydrangea, H. anomala subsp. petiolaris, a woody climber with broad, rounded leaves and large open heads of creamy-white flowers in summer.
Most are more familiar with the common hydrangea, H. macrophylla, a rounded shrub with cultivars divided into two groups: hortensias and lacecaps. Hortensias have large mophead blooms, while lacecaps have more subtle, flattened clusters of flowers.
The colour of the blooms depends on the acidity of the soil. Blue hydrangeas need to be kept in ericaceous compost or they will turn pink. However, you can buy powder to dilute and water into the shrub to keep it blue.
Hydrangeas prefer a damp soil and partial shade. The flowerheads, which turn straw-coloured in late autumn, provide structural winter interest and some protection for new buds emerging in late winter, so don't snip them off until early spring.
Good enough to eat - Sweet potatoes
Their rich orange flesh adds colour and texture to many dishes - I love sweet potatoes roasted with other vegetables, or mixed in warming stews when the weather turns cooler.
As they are widely grown in tropical countries, they do need a sunny and sheltered spot in rich, sandy soil, dug over with compost and a general fertiliser.
They are mainly grown from 'slips' - cuttings from a mature sweet potato available through seed companies or simply sprouting from a healthy sweet potato - and need four months to mature, so you need to plant tubers in May to enable them to grow to maturity.
However, you'll need to warm your soil first with cloches or black polythene, as the soil needs to be at least 12C (52F) for them to succeed. Plant them 6in (15cm) deep and 12in (30cm) apart with at least two leaf nodes under the soil. Keep them warm by growing them under cloches or through fleece and they'll need to be well watered regularly.
They can then be harvested the same way as potatoes in September.
Three ways to... Control difficult weed
1. If bindweed has grown up into plants, cut it off at the base, leaving the rest twining around the plant. Return in a few days and the stem will be much easier to unwind. Treat new shoots with weedkiller before they start climbing.
2. Cut stems of Japanese knotweed down and paint new soft growth with a glyphosate-based weedkiller.
3. If ground elder or other tough weed has invaded an area, consider covering the whole area with old carpet or thick black polythene to stop the light and thereby eventually eliminate the weed. You'll need to keep the ground covered for up to six months before digging it over and extracting all the roots.
What to do this week
:: Don't let the soil around newly-planted trees and shrubs dry out.
:: Mulch any areas of borders which have not been covered already and replenish old mulches.
:: Cut off or prune diseased leaves of plants so that overwintering spores won't survive until next year.
:: Continue to plant spring bulbs such as daffodils and crown imperials to give early colour.
:: Prune deciduous autumn-flowering shrubs over three years old as they finish flowering.
:: Harvest apples and pears as they ripen and store the excess.
:: Apply or renew greasebands on the trunks of apple and pear trees.
:: Remove shading wash from the greenhouse if applied in the spring.
:: Sow parsley and chervil for use in late winter and early spring.
:: Rake and scarify lawns to remove thatch and other debris.
:: Continue to blanch leeks, covering plants with tubes of cardboard or drainpipe.
:: Take hardwood cuttings of shrubs including privet, holly, aucuba, berberis, potentilla and rosemary.
:: Order new trees and bushes to plant out later this autumn.