What a good autumn we have had! There have been plenty of dry days and some warm ones as well before the temperatures dropped a little. Of course we wouldn’t want to be free of rain altogether, but some fine weather helps with garden tasks. There are leaves to rake up, beds to dig and compost heaps benefit from being turned over. There are still things to sow if you want and there are plenty of plants to prune and tie in.
Look around and consider other jobs too, that stretch beyond the beds and the borders. It’s a good idea to clean and paint wooden furniture before you put it away for the winter. Clean tools too and give them a rub of oil if you want to prevent rust in a shed. Oil hinges, clean out any debris from mowers, think about sharpening blades and servicing engines, and scrub wooden decks or steps so they aren’t too slippy to walk on. The better you leave everything now, the easier it will be to pick up with the garden and launch in with good heart next spring.
If you have a lot of fallen leaves in the garden, then buy a large rake that is designed for collecting them up. The right tool makes the job way easier than trying to remove leaves from lawns with a tool designed to level soil. There are good grabbers made for lifting piles of leaves too. I like the hinged ones with handles that allow you to stand upright and lift large amounts of material at one go.
Collecting leaves can seem a huge task at this time of year, but it is one that is well worth doing. Spread the leaves on empty beds as mulch: they look good, help shed water, keep weeds down and also encourage worm activity. If we get a strong wind, straight after you have put dry leaves on a bed, then some will blow away again, but as soon as they are wet, and start to break down, they will stay in place.
Another option is to stack the leaves up in a pile and leave them to rot. You will need a simple wire frame to keep them in place, or you can stuff leaves into porous, biodegradable hessian sacks.
It takes a year or more before the contents rot down to give a crumbly brown mix and maybe a second year before the silky fine leafmould is fully made. The end result is great for adding to potting mixes, or use when sowing carrots to get the best germination results. Leafmould is also perfect for adding rich organic material to a heavy soil. It doesn’t take much effort to make a batch – just pile up leaves and let them rot – so well worth the effort for what you get!
Use a hoe to weed between rows of young plants. Weed growth is slow at this time of year, but you still get small leaves growing up that you don’t want to confuse with those of the salad leaves. Some weeds are edible of course, but it is best to know which is which before you add them to the salad bowl. Look along the rows too and pull out anything that looks different to what you have sown. A clean row of leaves is easy to harvest: just use a pair of scissors to trim off the longer leaves at the top and more leaves will grow lower down the plants.
Soil can tend to go a bit green if undisturbed in the polytunnel through the winter months. A quick run through with a hoe will stir things up a bit. Some older gardeners call this ‘tickling the soil’: a technique that incorporates air and keeps the surface in a healthy state.
Cherish any flowers that last through the next few weeks. It will be a while before bulbs pop up to fill the gaps in herbaceous borders. Look out for plants with interesting winter foliage, or architectural stems that provide interest even when the leaves are gone.
You can cut back dead stems now and reduce parts of perennial borders back to hidden underground clumps. This looks tidy, but hesitate for just a moment: the dead tops can protect the plants from harsh winter weather to come and many less-hardy plants suffer if roots are frozen. If you do cut tops back to tidy the bed, then be sure to cover any exposed crowns with a mulch of leaves to keep them warm.
We don’t know yet if there is a big freeze or a winter of floods ahead of us, but it’s a good idea to protect borders in the best way that we can.
• Joyce Russell is a West Cork gardener and garden writer, and author of ‘The Polytunnel Book — Fruit and Vegetables All Year Round’, the best-selling guide to undercover growing.