00:00 Saturday 25 September 2010  Written by Joyce Russell

Protect against the frost

Nights can turn chilly as September moves on and last week's cold nights bring a reminder of frosts. A frost at this time of year is usually a transient thing. There might be a single cold night before temperatures lift back to a more seasonal average again. September seldom brings temperatures low enough to do serious damage, but, if a frost is forecast, it is worth covering vulnerable plants. Tender crops like courgettes, tomatoes and French beans can crop for a few more weeks if they are cosseted through the occasional cold night with a layer of newspaper, a cardboard box, or a piece of horticultural fleece. Remove coverings if necessary, to allow light through during the day.

A frost can improve the flavour of some crops - Brussels sprouts and parsnips both taste sweeter once temperatures dip. I like to wait for these crops to get a nip of winter before beginning to harvest them.

Pumpkins

A pile of ripe pumpkins is a glorious sight and one that always makes me smile. Maybe it's memories of carving them out for Halloween, or maybe it's the thought of all the heartening soups that will be made. Either way, it's time to think about the pumpkin bed, so none of those lovely fruits go to waste.

Some people say that the flavour of pumpkins is improved by a touch of frost. This might be true, but it can be a dangerous game. If the fruit is left out on a really cold night, you could lose the lot. My advice is to watch and wait for the moment when the fruit stops swelling and the skin has made a good deep colour - check the packet, this could be orange for some varieties, but some squash is ripe when green. The skin should start to firm up and the stem to harden. Pumpkins continue to ripen once they are picked, but they tend to keep better if they have reached full maturity on the plant.

Cut the fruit with a length of stem attached. Don't lift a heavy pumpkin by the stem, or it might break off. Store in a cool place and check every week for rot. Pumpkins can keep for months, but one rotten one can spill an extraordinary amount of liquid into the storage space.

Carrots

I usually dig my carrots in the last week or two of September. If you've only grown a few, they can be left in the ground for longer, and in a mild winter can be lifted as needed, but slugs might ruin the roots. If you've grown lots of carrots then it's best to lift and store them while they are unblemished. Leave 2cm of green stems and cut off the leaves above this point. Carrots store well in an open dustbin between layers of damp sand - just make sure the store is protected from rats and mice.

If the tops of the roots are green, write yourself a reminder to earth up after thinning next year's crop. Another answer is to mulch with the clippings after mowing the lawn - these will help keep light from the top of the roots and the scent will help keep carrot fly away.

Tomatoes

Outdoor tomatoes are unlikely to ripen well from now on. They need sunshine and a bit of protection to give them the best chance. Fruit can be used green, or put on a sunny windowledge to turn red.

If you have a greenhouse, conservatory, or polytunnel, the extra warmth should keep tomatoes ripening for several weeks yet. Pick ripe fruit, but remember to leave one or two red ones dotted around the plants. These give off a gas, which helps the remaining fruit to ripen.

Remove any discoloured, or diseased, leaves. These might be infected with blight, moulds or viruses. Stems can be stripped of all lower leaves and tomatoes will still ripen further up the plant.

Bulbs

It always seems such a positive thing to plant a few daffodils, tulips etc just when autumn is starting to bite. In a few weeks' time the bright leaf tips will burst through and the flowers won't be far behind.

Always look at the packets when buying bulbs. Consider the height they will grow to and how early they will flower. Aim to get a spread of colour over the early months of next year.

I like to plant a few large pots and window boxes with bulbs. These can be kept somewhere sheltered, so that leaves aren't battered by winter winds. Once the flower buds start to appear, move the pots close to the door of the house. They provide the earliest sparkle of spring at a time when the rest of the garden is still asleep.

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