OCTOBER can start off hanging onto the coat tails of summer, but before the month is out there will be a bite in the air. Keep up the enthusiasm for a week or two and get all in order for the next few months. There should be plenty to harvest and cleared beds to dig over. Be tidy and think ahead so the work you do now really counts.
By all means grow a pumpkin or two for Halloween, but grow more again to use as a delicious and storable winter harvest. These plants are easy to grow and they can start producing useable fruits in August. By early October there should be a good crop of fruits of all sizes. I like small ones that make a meal or two and they tend to be tastier than the giant varieties.
Pumpkins are ripe when they have stopped swelling and have produced a good colour (final colour depends on variety). They will ripen further in store if you have picked a little early. Always leave an inch or two of stem attached, so rot is less likely to gain a hold from this end of the fruit. And don’t ever hang pumpkins up by the stem: they will break free and fall with a bruising bump at some point.
In a mild autumn, plants can continue swelling fruits for a few more weeks. I remove the ripe pumpkins and spread them out in a cool shed. Many varieties will keep for months, but do check regularly in case any fruits rot: an extraordinary amount of liquid can be released from a rotten pumpkin.
Leave smaller unripe fruits on the plants. The first hard frost may end their life but if that frost is late in the year then you may get more useable fruits in the meantime.
Some people leave carrots in the ground and lift them as needed. I would be reluctant to do this if you have grown a large crop. Slugs often eat into the roots and where they make their mark, rot can enter. It is less risky to lift the lot on a fine day in early October. Lay them out to dry for an hour or two. Rub off any loose earth and cut the tops back to an inch or so in length.
The traditional storage method is to make a carrot clamp outdoors: where straw and earth are used for insulation, but unless you have a very big crop, this is a slightly complex alternative. Carrots store well for months in a cool shed when layered in damp sawdust or sand.
If you have a polytunnel, greenhouse or conservatory, try sowing some carrots in a large pot or direct in the border soil. Choose an early variety and protect from slugs. A sowing like this can do well in a mild winter and you will get an early crop of fingerling carrots next year. In a hard winter plants may not do anything much, but, like much in the vegetable garden, it is well worth a try.
Turn the heap
A compost heap is at its most active in the summer months. In colder weather it can be a smelly pile that is attractive to rats. Take action now and you should get some good compost to use next spring.
Turn the heap from one bin, or pile, to another if possible. This incorporates plenty of air and gives a kick-start to the breakdown process. If you only have a small plastic bin, then at least push a long stick, crowbar, or fork, in there and make some holes that allow air to mix through the contents.
Adding a layer or two of manure will always get a compost heap going. If you don’t have any, and are squeamish about using the excellent resource of urine, then buy a compost activator and mix that through the layers.
Remember that a heap of kitchen scraps will never make perfect compost: add in layers of grass clippings, cardboard, plant stems etc to get a more balanced mix.
When you have done your best, then cover the heap with something that either allows a small amount of water through, or keeps some moisture in underneath. A dry heap won’t rot, but nor will a soggy one.
Stag’s Horn Sumach (Rhus Typhina) produces brilliant coloured autumn leaves and it can be a feature in many West Cork gardens at this time of year. On the other hand, I had one where the leaves stayed green until they fell, which rather defeated the obj
ective. The secret is to plant in full sun for the best autumn colour. Try pruning shade trees nearby if you want to get the best display from this lovely small tree.
• 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.