Now is the time to improve your garden's prospects for next year, says Bunny Guinness Now that things are less frantic in the garden, it's a good time to reflect on the year and see how you can improve its performance next year. I'm a great believer in a Chinese saying that translates as "the best manure is the shadow of the gardener". Don't just look at your garden and think "how nice". You must scrutinise, observe, monitor, and take signals from your plants if things aren't as they should be. Many of the professional gardeners I have worked with have idiosyncratic approaches to making their gardens really sing. I have called on a few to gather their top tips, and added a few nuggets from Pippa Greenwood's new book, 1001 Ways to be a Better Gardener.
1 "Think about texture and form before colour, and think about space and atmosphere before anything," says Tom Stuart-Smith, the landscape architect and garden designer.
2 If there is no space beneath a shrub to plant some bulbs or lower-level colonisers, do some light pruning to raise its canopy.
3 Big structural plants in big pots, whether in a border, in gravel, paving or a lawn can raise interest levels. Remove the base of terracotta pots with a disc cutter. The plant will anchor and water itself after a year.
4 Water newly sown seeds with warm water; ice-cold tap water chills it all down and delays germination.
5 Always handle seedlings by the leaves - these are much tougher than the stems. Handling by the stem is potentially lethal. Also, research has shown that stroking your seedlings by brushing the tops with a bit of paper or card several times a day, whether inside or out, helps them develop sturdier stems.
6 Add a few Night Scented Stock seeds to your containers of summer bedding - night perfume is such a bonus.
7 Don't be tempted to use soil in your containers for bedding, says Pippa Greenwood. Soil rarely keeps its structure in a container and the plants often suffer from root rot. For more permanent containers, a 50 per cent soil-based compost (John Innes no 2/3) and 50 per cent loamless compost gives more staying power.
8 My cousin Claire Austin, a nurserywoman (www.claireaustin-hardyplants.co.uk) always writes twice on a plant label, one above the soil line and one below. The pencil name below the soil line lasts a good five years or more, whereas the one above gets degraded far more quickly by sunlight. Peter Seabrook adds that if you gather up the labels from successful crops it gives you all the information needed to repeat the success. For my "permanent" plants I use sticky-backed, laminated, waterproof labels, which I type on a labelling machine (from less than £30, www.vizid.co.uk; 01572 574910). Each label takes seconds and they have been tested to last for 16 years.
9 Get a greenhouse, says Toby Buckland, the Gardeners' World presenter. Even unheated, it vastly extends the growing season for home-grown food, and in our increasingly temperamental summers makes for a clement place to garden. Mine becomes more invaluable each year - it extends your range incredibly.
10 I am a great believer in doing things in the garden when the mood takes me. I sometimes move plants in the height of summer and, providing you have a decent amount of soil on their roots, shade netting and can water, they often establish really quickly. There is much guff talked about how you must never move herbaceous peonies. Provided you take a decent bit of soil with them, I have never had a problem with getting them to flower straight after moving.
11 A tip from my mother, who runs a nursery (www.classicgardener.co.uk). She puts several sheets of soaked newspaper (preferably the Telegraph) into the base of a planting hole with some soil on top. The paper acts like a wick and stops the water disappearing too fast. It's especially useful for planting in dry places, such as climbers by a building. Twenty-five years ago I planted one third of my hornbeam hedge with and two-thirds without, and the difference was staggering.
12 If you are concerned about a tree becoming too huge for the position you have chosen for it, act now. It is far better to prune and shape a tree when it is younger than side-stepping the issue until it is large and mature.
13 When growing lettuce in pots, put some in the shade to slow down bolting - a great tip from Pippa Greenwood. I will take it on board and do it with leaf coriander, too.
14 Garden designer Arabella Lennox Boyd uses strulch (strulch.co.uk, 01943 863610), a new material made of brown straw as a mulch to keep weeds out of her vegetable patch. She says it is a real winner.
15 Anne Swithinbank (my fellow Gardeners' Question Time panellist) recommends planting marjoram next to your runner beans. The flowers attract bags of bees, so you get great pollination (and setting) of your beans.
16 Vine weevils, above, are extremely good at playing dead when disturbed - do not be fooled by this!
17 If you see larger fungi, such as toadstools or bracket fungi, appearing on a large tree in your garden, it is essential you find out exactly what the fungus is. Some are of no consequence, but others can indicate that the tree is potentially dangerous. Removing a fungal growth from a tree does not remove the problem - it may help to limit spore production, but the damage is likely to continue within the tree.
18 Ants were everywhere this year. If you find ants and don't know where their nest is, put down a dollop of jam and trace the nest. Then disturb it with a fork and add a proprietary ant killer or boiling water.
19 John Cushnie's tip is topical. He says when cutting the grass at this time of year, raise the blades a bit before running the mower over the lawn (with a box); give it a light cut and collect the leaves at the same time. Then put the whole lot on the compost heap. Although I am a mulch mower convert, I use a rotary at this time of year for leaf collection. 20 Rules are made to be broken. When necessary, I have sown lawns in deepest winter (contrary to all received wisdom), and have not had a failure yet