Gardening with Joyce Russell
October has already brought a touch of frost to my garden and it is time to start accepting that autumn is in full swing. This first nip of cold weather can improve the flavour of both pumpkins and parsnips but a hard frost can also damage these vegetables. Lift and store pumpkins in a frost-free place and cover parsnip rows with a layer of straw, cardboard or horticultural fleece if you want to leave them in the ground to dig as needed.
I like to mow near the end of October and this usually lasts right through until spring next year. In a particularly mild autumn, a November mow may be needed to tidy things up; in a particularly wet one it may not be possible to get a mower out without leaving muddy tracks.
Keep an eye on the forecast and use fine days well. Remember that a mower with a grass box can be used to pick up leaves: the blades will chop everything into a fine mix that is suitable for using as mulch or adding to the compost heap.
Think about bulbs
There may not be quite the same choice in shops that there was a few weeks ago, but you can often pick up bargain packets of bulbs at this time of year. Check to make sure the contents aren’t shrivelled or sprouted and yellow.
If bulbs seem firm they are worth using. Buy a few extra to compensate for losses and get them into the ground as soon as you can.
And don’t worry if you bought bulbs ages ago and haven’t yet got around to taking them out of the bag. Many bulbs can be planted right up to Christmas, but the sooner you get them into a good growing medium the better chance you have of a great spring display.
I’d like to put in a word for the beauty of alliums. It is worth putting a few bulbs in a large container and a few more in a well-drained flower border. The large round flower heads are really spectacular in late spring and early summer. The flowers last for weeks and the seed heads are great for dried flower arrangements when the flowers are done.
Winter salad and
If you have a polytunnel or greenhouse it is easy to have a year-round supply of salad and greens. The secret is to sow and resow every few weeks so there is always a new row growing when an old one clears. Of course you don’t have to be fanatical, but there is something really special about being able to pick and eat a range of leaves through the coldest months of the year. If you don’t have a greenhouse then sow some of the winter hardy options in a sheltered bed outdoors. Or try sowing in pots in a porch.
Sow between rows and fill gaps with lettuce, mizuna, purslane, corn salad, mustard greens, cress, kale, spinach, and more. Some will come faster than others and some will peak sooner as well, but if you grow a good mix there should always be plenty to pick.
Leaves may be looking tatty and some plants may have finished cropping altogether, but some of the biggest beauties of the tomato world might only just be coming into their own. In a good hot summer or a hot greenhouse, giant tomatoes will ripen sooner, but in a less sunny one they will only start to blush in the autumn. Be patient and wait and they should produce some really tasty eating before too long.
Cut back on watering, so skins don’t split under the stress between deluge and drought, and stop feeding too if you haven’t already done so. The fruit is already formed so all it needs to do is ripen.
To dig or not?
Autumn can be a good time to dig over empty beds. It is also a good time to incorporate some manure or compost from the garden heap. If you cover the bed with black polythene (or equivalent) after this treatment, then beds will be all ready to plant when the cover is peeled back next spring.
That is the theory, but there are some words of warning:
• Don’t walk on or dig any sodden soil. This can lead to compacted soil with a poor structure and cold wet earth is never a good environment for living organisms.
• Only add feed to the ground at this end of the year if you can cover the beds to reduce the effects of winter rain.
• Slugs like to hide and breed under black polythene so be prepared to look closely and get rid of the pests when you remove the cover in spring.