As the autumn nights draw in and the crops are harvested and stored, the garden is gradually put to bed in preparation for starting again in the spring. Soil management is a priority and the key to success or failure in the garden. And then there’s the pleasure of planning the planting for next year. What should we replant and where? Which varieties did well and which should we not bother with again? And which new ones will suit both our garden and our needs? Hard thinking and research now will be rewarded.
Prepare the ground
Removing finished crops
Clearing away crops as soon as they’ve finished producing is good organic-hygiene practice that can help remove any pests still present. Unless any foliage is diseased (as in blighted potato haulms, which should be burnt), it can all go on the compost heap. By shredding the tough stems of broad beans, sweetcorn and any brassicas, they will rot down more quickly in the compost heap. When clearing broad beans, leave the roots in the ground where they will fix nitrogen in the soil, to benefit the crop that follows them.
Gather up fallen leaves. We use three compartments for storing and rotating our leaf mould. The largest, made from wire netting, is for the bulky new autumn leaves, so last year’s leaves are best moved on now into the second compartment, built half the size of the wire one, but made from exterior plywood, where the leaves are held for another year. The third compartment then gets the two-year-old leaf mould, which is ready for use. Plastic dustbins (with lids) or wheelie bins are handy to store the two-year-old leaf mould as they prevent it becoming sodden and are movable around the garden.
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Cut down asparagus plants as soon as the foliage starts to go yellow, to stop them being rocked by the wind, enabling water to soak the crowns. Removing foliage also makes it easier to hoe and rake out weeds. Apply compost or mulch afterwards; if you do this every year, you will see the development of the typical ridges.
Soil preparation for trees
Prepare the ground for planting new fruit trees, which should be ordered now. Apples, pears and cherries will need a hole dug 18in square and to the same depth. If you’re planting trees in lawns or meadows, loosen the soil in the bottom of the hole, chop up the turf and put it in the bottom, then fill it with a half-and-half mixture of well-rotted garden compost and soil. If you prepare your holes now, the compost mix will be settled and ready by the time your trees are delivered.
Try to avoid continuously trampling on the soil while working on the garden. If you do have to use the same route again and again, put down planks (paired-up floorboards are ideal) to redistribute weight it saves boots getting muddy, too. When you move the planks, lift the soil beneath with a fork.
Prepare for runner beans
If you prepare a trench now for next year’s runner beans, you can get rid of some of your kitchen waste and nourish the beans, too. Dig a trench 1ft deep and 1ft across and leave the soil in a ridge nearby, to make the trench easier to fill in next year. The trench can be used as another compost bin for household or garden waste, which will be broken down by rain and frost to give the beans a good organic start for their roots. Fill the trench to about two-thirds of the depth with the waste and leave it to rot down until spring, when you should put back the previously dug soil. (This process especially benefits heavy soils.)
Tidying herbaceous plants
Ground conditions are usually drier now than in the New Year, so press on with the cutting down and tidying up of herbaceous plants. Most perennials will continue to be vigorous if you divide them every few years. Don’t split the clumps too small before replanting them; always add some leaf mould or compost to the soil when you put them in.
First of all, please remember the hedgehog who might have chosen his ideal spot for hibernation in the pile of brushwood waiting to be burnt. If the pile has been up for a while, undo it to check that he’s not sleeping underneath. If your bonfire was made mostly of wood, then the residual ash can be put on flowering plants that benefit from potash; it can be applied at any time of the year as a surface dressing.
As the season gets colder and darker, so the enthusiasm for weeding ebbs, too, but if you do hoe weeds when you can during the autumn, it will pay dividends next spring. If you’re unable to hoe, with a bit of care, you can smother and kill patches of weeds with a thick mulch of compost. Larger weeds can be chopped up with the hoe before covering make sure you’ve covered them all completely as any greenery showing will sprout again.
Please think about the gardener’s valuable friend, the hedgehog, when you begin to tidy up, especially when giving shrubs a heavy prune or even removing them. He loves to hibernate in heaped leaves under dense shrubbery, so perhaps you could put down a hedgehog house, covered with leaves, under another shrub if you’re working somewhere you know that he usually sleeps through the winter. An organic garden relies on such predators to control a lot of the pests.
Help bees by planting spring flowers and bulbs. The queen may start laying eggs as early as February, but the bees’ food can soon run out as they feed the young larvae. On mild days, they will leave the hive to forage for nectar. If you plant plenty of early flower-ing crocuses now, they’ll find sustenance in March. Any garden with fruit trees should be bee-friendly; plant spring-blooming flowers and bulbs now, that will coincide with the flowering of your fruit trees, to encourage the bees to pollinate around the orchard.
Through early autumn, increase your soft-fruit bushes, such as currants and gooseberries, by taking hardwood cuttings. Cuttings should be at least 6in long, of good-quality growth and cut horizontally just below a leaf joint at the base and a sloping cut at the top, away from a leaf joint. Remove the bottom half of leaves and push a number of the cuttings into a deep pot of free-draining compost to the depth of the remaining leaves. Water in well and place outside in a sheltered location, but not in full sun. Don’t allow them to dry out before the winter and keep them well watered in the spring and they could be ready for potting on next autumn.
Plant out new strawberries now. Carefully cut the runners off your old stock and dig them up making sure that the roots are protected by a ball of soil. Remove all dead or damaged leaves and then replant in their new positions as soon as possible, so that the vulnerable roots don’t dry out. Plant them on a slight ridge rather than in a hollow where water will collect and rot the crowns. Be sure to plant at the correct depth for your variety. Old strawberry plants can be removed now, together with their straw mulch. You can add it all to the compost heap, unless there’s any sign of disease.
Planting more raspberries
Raspberry canes have a productive life of eight or nine years, so if you plant new ones before the old ones dwindle, you will achieve continuity. If your old plants are healthy, but not growing many new canes, now is the time to propagate from them to start a new row preferably not too close to the old ones. Pick out the strongest of the new canes and, with a sharp spade, cut midway between the new growth and the old and lift away the new one with as much soil and root as possible. Raspberries are shallow-rooted plants, so replant at the same depth; they’ll appreciate a trench enriched with lots of organic compost to feed them and to retain moisture. Cut the new canes back to 18in and don’t let them fruit next year.
Completing pruning now means that you can expand your stock by taking hardwood cuttings from the new growth at the ends of the branches. Cuttings should be at least 6in long. Remove any leaves from the bottom half and then push several of the twigs into a deep pot of free-draining compost up to the remaining leaves; leave the pots outside in a sheltered place out of the full sun. These should root during the winter and spring and be ready to use in a year’s time.
Prune and train your blackberries as you do any other cane fruit. New growth should be supported as soon as possible to avoid wind damage. Cut back the old flowering canes and tie in, horizontally, as many of the new shoots as possible; don’t cross the canes one over another. Blackberry growth can be unpredictable, in wet years producing great lengths, so use vine eyes and wire to make the most of it.
Apple and pear harvest
It’s not so easy to tell you when your apples are ready for picking as there are so many different varieties. If you know which you have growing in your orchard, a good fruit reference book can help with the times for pollination and picking. Any early varieties should be ready by now, but are best eaten from the tree rather than being stored. Hold what you think is a ripe apple in the palm of your hand and lift it gently; if the stalk snaps easily from the fruiting spur, it’s ready.
Pears are more tricky. Ideally, they should be picked before they’re fully ripe, so again, it’s important to know your varieties. An apple is usually past its best when the skin starts to shrivel, but some pears ripen from the inside outwards and may well be past their best before you realise. It’s difficult to get the best conditions for storage of both, but the general rules are that they should be stored in a cool, dark place and one fruit should not touch another. Nor, if possible, should you store together fruits that ripen at different times. You can juice and then freeze apples that are unsuitable or too damaged for storing.
Breaking the rules
Apple trees are easiest to prune after leaf fall, but if the autumn frosts are late in coming, the leaves remain on the trees a long time. It does no harm to start pruning them now, with the leaves still on, making this one job that can be completed before the year’s end.
Re-tie trained fruit trees
After a season’s use, replace the twine holding your trained fruit trees, even if it still looks fine. Winter’s winds will find out the weakest threads and you risk damage to trees that have taken years to train.
Mulching with garden compost or well-rotted manure will help to keep young orchard trees protected as well as feeding the soil round the roots. Avoid placing the mulch against the stem of young trees to help prevent the risk of damage that could lead to any dis-ease, such as canker, attacking the tree.
Quinces in store
Once quinces ripen in October, pick and store them until their strong and unique scent is fully developed; it can be overpower-ing in a small space, so keep them away from your other stored fruit. Some people like to have a bowl of them in the house to scent the rooms. We’ve had success with the variety known as Portugal, even though it is susceptible to leaf blight in wet summers. Vranja, which has good-sized fruit, is less prone to blight.
New plants for next year
Seed catalogues will be dropping through the door shortly, and placing an order while crop successes are still in your mind is a good idea; seed potatoes, shallots and onion sets should always be ordered early.
Now is the time to sow autumn crops, such as overwintering onion sets (Japanese onions), broad beans and perhaps peas, but, with the latter, you should calculate whether it’s really worth your time, trouble and expense. Onions should be all right, the beans might get through, but we’ve found our winter peas never survive. For an early crop next year, we prefer to sow a few in pots early in the year and put them under glass or in a cold frame.
Selecting new rhubarb
If you’re starting a new bed, chose a variety to suit your needs either an early or a late producer or one that is best forced in lidded pots. Or better still, barter with a neighbour to get roots of one that grows well in your area. As rhubarb has large leaves, it’s not a plant to be squeezed into a small place; it also likes a sunny position.
Support winter greens
If you followed our method of planting tall brassicas deep into the ground, they will now be well anchored to stop them blowing over in the winds of the year’s end. Brussels sprouts, kale and spring-flowering broccoli are all vulnerable to the wind; if they’re planted in a block rather than in rows, they will help shelter and support each other. If you use a small stake or stout cane for any plants that might be suffering, be careful not to let the support rub against the plant.
Squashes and pumpkins
A hardened skin is important if you want to store your squashes, pumpkins and marrows for later use in the winter. The first to set will be the best to store; leave them on the vine until the plant begins to die down. (Use the less mature ones now.) Once they’re picked, leave them outside in the sun and, if possible, raise them off the ground so that the air can circulate.
Vegetables in the ground
You don’t have to harvest all your vege-tables when autumn arrives, as quite a few can be left in the ground. Once you lift a vegetable, it will start to lose moisture and wither if it’s not stored in a damp medium. Leeks are best lifted as and when you need them; parsnips are hardy and can also be left in the ground. Leave your carrots, too, preferably covered with horticultural fleece, but keep an eye out for slug damage. As winters get milder, we leave our beetroot and celeriac in the ground and use when needed, but the classic method of storage is to remove excess soil and foliage and then layer them in a wooden box in a moist medium, such as peat, coir or sand and store in a shed or garage.
The greenhouse may be nearly empty of stock at this time of year, and so it’s a good moment to have a thorough clean both inside and out. Depending on its structural materials, old-fashioned soap and water is often the best way to wash down the glass and framework certainly, if you still have some large plants inside that you can’t move. For modern, aluminium frames, a pressure-washer is useful to remove pests sheltering in the nooks and crannies. And don’t forget the benches, as adult vine weevils easily hide in the corners.
By late September, any green tomatoes left on your plants need the sun to help them ripen, so remove any leaves shading the fruits. It’s best, if possible, to let the tomatoes ripen on the stalk so that you have a steady supply, but if they need removing before they’re fully ripe, place them on
a sunny windowsill or put them together in a brown paper bag. The best method is to place them close to another ripe fruit, especially a banana, as the gases they give off will quickly bring them to maturity.
Indoor grape vines
Once the leaves have fallen in October or November, you can prune this year’s lateral branches back to the main stem or rod. Cut each back as close as possible to a bud that will become next year’s lateral shoot. The rods can be extended by carefully pruning and tying the leading lateral to the length that suits you best. The stem is best connected to a simple pulley system, which can be lowered from the greenhouse roof, making it easier to work on both the vine, or the glass roof as required. Rub off any loose bark by hand to expose any over-wintering insects, which can be dealt with by using an insecticidal soap, such as Savona (from The Organic Gardening Catalogue, www.organiccatalog.com).