How not to stake a tree

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I’ve been working on an interesting little project lately in Dorset, looking after a newly-designed garden which is learning to settle back in to its landscape after some fairly major re-sculpting of a steep hillside into handsome stone-built terraces.

The (extremely nice) owners are keen gardeners but not knowledgeable, so it’s up to me to come up with solutions to the inevitable little problems that crop up when you drop a garden onto a hillside and leave the evolution into maturity till afterwards.

The owners mentioned to me that three little ornamental Japanese cherries planted on one of the terraces hadn’t been thriving this summer. We worked through the usual possible ailments: drought in this year’s relatively dry summer, lack of shelter (the prevailing wind blows directly onto this terrace), silverleaf disease.

But then I went and actually looked at them, close-up. And it was blindingly obvious what the problem was: the above (bar the silverleaf) may have played their part but the clincher was the way these trees have been staked.

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It’s hard to know where to start.

Bamboo canes. Far too weak, flimsy and flexible to hold a growing tree steady against gales and the knocks and bumps of everyday life. They weren’t stuck into the ground all that deeply either – you could flap them about with one hand. No support whatsoever.

That flexitie. I have issues with this stuff for all sorts of reasons: but in this case, again, it’s far too stretchy for holding a young tree in position.  It’s also tied so loosely around the tree that it’s simply not doing its job.

All this meant these little trees might just as well have been planted without stakes at all. And you could see the damage: the root balls were clearly lifting out of the ground.

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The reason you stake a tree while it’s getting established is to hold the rootball firmly in place. If you don’t, when the top of the tree whips about in the wind it will also pull at the rootball, which (because you haven’t staked it properly) is free to move within the soil. That rips away those delicate feeder roots a tree puts out to explore and colonise the surrounding soil, effectively repeatedly preventing the roots from anchoring the tree in the ground. This keeps the root ball loose, and because the tree can’t develop a better root system than it had in the pot, it cannot grow. That’s why these trees were suffering.

So here’s what I did:

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This is a proper tree stake: around 7.5cm (3″) diameter, sturdy round wooden pole about 1.5m (5ft) long (you can use squared timber, as long as it’s good and robust). It dwarfs the tree trunk a little but that’s the point: it’s meant to be stronger.

I’ve driven it in to the ground with a mallet at a 45° angle, firmly enough that you can’t move it easily by hand. Opinion is divided about whether stakes should be parallel with the trunk to about halfway up, or like this: I’ve always favoured the 45° approach as it holds the rootball while letting the top of the tree move, and you’re driving it in a little way away from the rootball itself so you don’t have to damage any roots by sinking it closer to the trunk.

You’ll notice it’s pointing away from the wall, into the wind: this is deliberate. When the wind blows at this tree, the force is pushing the tree against the stake’s anchor, so it shouldn’t move. If I’d pointed it the other way (or straight upwards) the wind is effectively pulling at the tree rather than pushing it into the stake – much less stable.

And last but not least: a proper, collared tree tie. This holds snugly around the trunk and around the stake, the collar making sure the two don’t rub, and is stretchy enough to allow growth but not stretchy enough to give in to the wind. I’ll be checking that tie each summer as the trees grow and loosening it off if it’s needed: hopefully, in a couple of seasons’ time, this tree will be fully recovered from its bad start, well rooted and growing on so strongly I can pull the stake out and let it strike out on its own.

Problem solved!

 

This month in the garden…

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Just-planted garlic

…it is getting cold. Seriously, properly cold.

Actually I can’t remember being cold before Christmas before (well, a bit chilly, perhaps, but not cold of the three layers and double socks kind just yet).

We have, I think, become a bit soft in recent years what with all this global warming malarkey. Things may be a little extreme in this respect at my end of the country, around 20 miles from the south coast and never the coldest of places generally.

But since the epic winter of 2010 (when we had about 10 winters’ worth of snow, hoarfrost and ice for a memorable three or four months from November to February) we’ve been lucky to get a frost at all. Last year the lowest temperature I recorded was around 1°C, in February; the previous year we dipped to an adventurous -2°C for one night only. It was hardly the second ice age.

Anyway, all this is by way of saying that this month in the garden I have had to get my skates on (not quite literally but you never know) in a way I have not been accustomed to doing, and do all those getting-ready-for-winter things I’ve previously been putting off till about January. So here’s what I’ll be up to…

Planting garlic I have had a bit of a garlic crisis this year: every last plant succumbed to rust. I am therefore launching an experiment: I’m replanting the bulbs from the garlic which survived the longest, in an attempt to select a strain that copes better with the (now endemic) garlic rust in my garden. I will report back with results.

Collecting leaves There are so many leaves. So, so many leaves. I watched them rain down the other day like a golden snowstorm. And so to work with my trusty rake and wheelbarrow to fill as many leafmould bins as I can before they all run out.

Putting the veg garden to bed The endless task continues: clear crops, cart off to compost heap, weed, mulch, cover, repeat. I am still only halfway down the veg garden and I’ve already run out of soil improver.

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Spring cabbage still going strong after around ten straight months of harvesting

Picking spring cabbage Yes, you read that right: spring cabbage. I planted it last August (that’s August 2015) and it has been going strong ever since, mainly through my laziness in not getting around to pulling it out, so it just sprouts again. A happy accidental discovery: I shall be doing this again…

Clearing the greenhouse The cucumbers are spent; the green peppers picked. Time to strip out the last of the summer crops and get the greenhouse ready for its winter role. I have only one this year, as we’re having to move the other: I am bereft.

Lining said greenhouse with bubblewrap insulation You save around 25% on the average heating bill by insulating your greenhouse, so they say. I know it keeps things much cosier, and often means I don’t have to turn on the heater at all.

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Winter lettuces, ‘White Lisbon Winter Hardy’ spring onions, American land cress and a couple of rows of corn salad and radish seedlings tucked up safely in their plumbing pipe cloche

Planting winter salads under cloches Since I am deprived of my winter salads greenhouse this year I am resorting to planting out my greenery under cloches instead (or rather, one massive cloche made of blue plumbing pipe and clear polythene).

Wrapping bananas The Musa basjoo in the back garden has been going great guns this year, so the plan is to wrap it in the time-honoured way (chop leaves off, wrap in straw and hessian or fleece, big bubblewrap hat) and leave it outside for the first time.

Digging up pelargoniums My scented-leaf pelargonium collection is expanding all the time: I do need to bring it in for winter, though. This year they’ve been in containers on the front steps, making this particular job much easier.

Planting tulips Ah yes: there is some joy to be had this month. This year’s order includes ‘Ballerina’, ‘Jan Reus’, ‘Purple Prince’, ‘Violet Beauty’ and ‘White Triumphator’. I am looking forward to spring very much.

Pick of the month: Crabapples

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Crabapple ‘John Downie’ (I think)

There are some garden plants which can’t make up their mind where they belong. Kitchen garden? Or flower borders?

The answer, almost always, is both. I’m a big fan of including ornamental-but-edible plants in the bit of the garden that isn’t explicitly for growing food: things like the fuchsias I harvest for their berries, or the lavenders and scented-leaf pelargoniums which on the rare occasions I have time and opportunity to channel my inner domestic goddess I use for flavouring cookie dough.

Crabapples fall firmly into this territory. They are pretty little garden trees, with lovely spring blossom and pretty good autumn colour too. They behave themselves impeccably, never outgrowing their space and needing little pruning: the worst you can say of them is that they have a bit of a meh outline that can look downright scruffy if you like your gardens architecturally pleasing. But in a wild garden like mine, that’s fine.

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My best crabapple harvest ever

We inherited a crab with the garden but it has never, until this year, fruited. I’m not sure what’s brought on its current outburst of generosity: perhaps it’s because I pruned the top out last year to give it a slightly better shape and pulled off the curtain of Clematis montana that had – as it does most years – leapt across from the fence over which it grows rampantly alongside to climb up and over the crabapple as well. The montana is a lovely plant, and I forgive it everything each May when it smothers said fence (about 20ft long) with a confection of flowers so dense you can’t see the foliage underneath. But it’s sometimes hard to keep its ambitions for world domination in check.

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Crabapple windfalls

Or maybe it’s just because it’s been a good year for apples: the Devonshire Quarrenden in the veg garden has been prolific this season, too. But anyway: for the first time the ground beneath was carpeted with little miniature apples. Pound after pound of them. They’re gorgeous.

I’m pretty sure our crab is a ‘John Downie’, the variety most often recommended if you want the best fruit: and I can vouch for its prolific harvest of large (2-3″) fruits. They are flushed red, but cook to a honey yellow.

For brilliant red crabapple jelly, you might try ‘Red Sentinel’, particularly lovely as the (smaller) fruits glow so bewitchingly against the foliage in autumn. ‘Golden Hornet’ I’m not so fond of: there was one in the gardens at Bicton College when I was studying there and its fruits turn an unappetising brown when overripe, still on the tree. It doesn’t, as they say in the trade, die well.

These are the three I have personal experience of: I’m told ‘Gorgeous’ and ‘Dolgo’ are better choices if you like your crabapple Jelly scarlet as the red fruits are somewhat larger than ‘Red Sentinel’. Crabs are naturally high in pectin and mix well with other fruits, so if you’re making jelly or jam, add a few crabapples to help it set: hedgerow jelly, made of crabapples and blackberries, is sublime. And as if that weren’t enough on the usefulness scale: crabapples will also pollinate domestic apples, so if you don’t have room for two full-sized apple trees, try one apple tree and one crabapple instead. They can even be espalier-trained if you only have a fence to spare. Versatile or what.

 

Bindweed two ways

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Not convolvulus at all, but the far, far worse Calystegia sepium

My life is entangled with bindweed roots. They writhe through my dreams and wind around my fingers; every fork full of soil turns up another spaghetti nest of fat white worms reaching deep into the ground.

I have always gardened with bindweed. It is, for me anyway, a fact of horticultural life. Other perennial weeds I find easier to live with: couch grass is a pain, but at least it grows in between your plants and the roots don’t break so easily, so they pull out in a hawser rope that, if you pull carefully and steadily, comes away cleanly. It’s so satisfying to weed: each time a bit comes free of the soil it’s an intense pleasure, like peeling off an intact strip of sunburnt skin. Sorry. But you know what I mean.

But bindweed breaks easily: however thick the rope you pull from the ground, however carefully you work it free, it always, always breaks. It is a plant killer, creeping up and strangling them with wire-like stems until they croak into submission. It wraps itself around their roots like some subterranean boa constrictor. And you can never, never get rid of it.

I’ve become an accidental expert on bindweed over the years. For example: though we know bindweed as convolvulus, the better known one (the one that strangles your plants) isn’t convolvulus at all but Calystegia, specifically C. sepium.

The true convolvulus is a much milder version (though still very annoying in the garden), the field bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis. It’s smaller, and grows sideways more readily than upwards, though it will climb a handy stalk if it really gets going.

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Convolvulus arvensis: smaller, but still really annoying

My terrace garden is infested with it: if you work your fingers under the crown and pull, the central long root untwines like a coil out of the ground (snapping, of course, to regenerate again). It comes back again within a matter of a week or two and makes mats across the ground, and (unlike Calystegia) spreads from seed as readily as from roots, so there’s no getting rid of it.

Calystegia sepium, aka hedge bindweed, is altogether worse, a plant-murdering thug of a weed. It would be quite pretty if it wasn’t such a psychopath: heart-shaped leaves, showy white bell-shaped flowers. But it is hell-bent on garden domination and lets nothing, but nothing stand in its path.

I have, over the years, given up trying to get rid of it. You simply can’t. I battled it for eight long years in my previous garden: I tried forking it out endlessly, that cane trick (train it up a cane, blitz with glyphosate), stuffing it in jamjars then spraying into that, black plastic, the lot. Nothing worked: as inevitably as the first frosts of winter, back it came. There is a (possibly apocryphal) tale of a man who dug out his city garden to a depth of two metres to get rid of the bindweed, and sieved every bit of soil he put back to make sure he removed the tiniest shred of root. He put his garden back together again and within two years the bindweed was back stronger than ever. So don’t try to banish it: you will just spend a lot of time raging and frustrate yourself into an early grave (liberally laced with bindweed roots after a few weeks, no doubt).

I’ve noticed a few things about bindweed in my long acquaintance with it: first, it hates cultivated soil and thrives best in that patch of ground you haven’t touched in a few months. So if you keep planting and sowing, moving and dividing, it rarely takes hold: it is telling that in my main veg garden, where I’m constantly cultivating, the bindweed is struggling to make inroads from the hedgerows, while in the more ornamental, mostly permanently planted bit it is much more rampant.

Second, if you dig it out, it comes back twice as vigorously. If you just pull out the stem by hand (don’t cut it) it just returns as a single stem. So I don’t try to fork it out any more.

Instead, I reason that if you don’t have to look at it, it doesn’t really matter what’s going on under the ground. So I do my best to pull out strands by hand, as above, whenever I see them: and in between I hoe, keeping the ground moving and cultivated and chopping off the heads (rather satisfyingly) of any bindweed that might be impertinent enough to poke its nose above ground level.

Amazingly, that has all but eliminated a fairly serious bindweed infestation in one garden I look after: I’m sure it’s all still there, biding its time till the gardener goes away again, but the borders are definitely bindweed-free, to look at at least.

In my own garden it’s a bit trickier: I don’t have as much time there as I get paid to spend in other people’s gardens, so the scorched-earth policy is a bit more hit and miss. In those areas I get to regularly, though, you wouldn’t think there was a bindweed army just beneath the surface. And as far as I’m concerned, if you can’t see it, it ain’t there. Sorted.

How to make a compost bin #2

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(You can find part 1 here)

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Clear and level the ground before you so much as lift a hammer

So – now you’ve got the upright bits: what’s next?

Well, time to bolt it all together.

Before you do anything, clear and level the ground you’re going to place your bins on until it’s a flat piece of ground: this will be your workbench too, so make sure it’s easy to use.

 

Stand your ends up at each side (propped up on planks if you don’t have spare people to hold them) and then stand up the inserts too, measuring to make sure they are exactly 1.2m apart. Slipping a 1.2m plank across between the front slots helps.

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Sides and inserts carefully positioned, and the first back board in place ready to cut to size

Once you’re happy, place your first 2.5m plank across the back of two of the bays. This is a really important stage to get right – so take your time.

 

Double-check the two bays are exactly 1.2m wide at the back, then cut the plank to fit so it runs across the back of both bays.

I find it all moves around too much if you try to nail it on while everything is still vertical, so at this point I prefer to tip the bays over onto their fronts so the backs are uppermost.

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Bays tipped onto their fronts and the back starting to go on

Again, you’ll need to prop them upright using planks or people; and again, measure and re-measure to make sure they’re all 1.2m apart, and level (use a spirit level in both directions to make sure they’re absolutely upright, and also horizontal).

 

Now it’s much easier to line up the first plank across the back and nail it in place. Then cut a shorter length, a little over 1.2m, to fit across the back of the third bay, butting up nicely with the longer piece.

Once you’ve got those two pieces in place everything gets much easier. Work your way up the back, lining the planks up with the boards you used on the sides (you can use a spacer, but you usually don’t need to).

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Stagger the joints between long and short back boards like bricks for extra strength

Stagger the joints like bricks, so the longer board starts on alternate sides – this gives the back a lot of strength. And if you’ve done the alternately overlapping boards thing on the sides, you fit one board so the end shows, and the next so it tucks in behind the side board (I didn’t take a pic of this so will add this after my next visit).

 

When you’re about halfway up, call in a couple of friends and get them to take a bay each, then tip the whole thing back upright (you’ll need one person in each bay as otherwise it can twist catastrophically out of shape).

Pause for a while to make sure absolutely everything is where it should be: your bins will be too heavy to move once you’ve finished, so make sure you’ve left access for maintenance all the way around, and that it’s all sitting level on the ground. Bricks under the corners can help the boards sit a little way off the ground so they don’t rot; they also help get everything level, too.

Once you’re happy that everything’s level and in the right place, you can finish off the back in situ (by now it’s all bolted firmly enough in place to be able to work upright).

Finally, slot the first board in to the front of each bay, and nail it in place through the back upright so that it’s fixed. This helps keep the bays square, and holds the compost in better, too.

wp_20161007_16_02_57_proAnd that’s it! As you fill each bay with compost, just slot another plank down the front until it’s full. Then start the next one. Remember to turn regularly, and in six months or so you’ll have your first wheelbarrows of lovely home-made soil improver to work its magic on your garden.

How to make a compost bin #1

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The above set-up is all you will ever need by way of composting.

Three bins is the nirvana of perfect compost-making: you have one bay you’re filling (usually the one on the left), then the middle one is rotting down over six months or so, and the one on the end is rotted and ready to use.

Once you’ve used the compost on the right-hand side, you simply turn the compost from the middle bin into the right-hand bin, then empty your newest compost into the middle bin. Cover and leave to rot, and start a new heap in the left-hand bin. As you move it across you mix it all up, accelerating the rotting process and generally improving your compost making.

Each bay measures about 1.2m square and tall – it holds around a cubic metre of compost. I find this is about as much as an average veg garden (or allotment) can cope with, both because it takes up a fairly large chunk of garden (1.2m x about 4m altogether), and it’s as much as I can do to keep up with filling it even with my fairly hefty array of material including garden waste, kitchen waste and the, ahem, rear-end products from horses, sheep and chickens.

We gardeners are nothing if not multi-taskers, so I made one of my triple-bay compost bins for a client last week. This is the third set I’ve done now; if you don’t fancy the full three bins right away, just scale it down and make separate 1.2m x 1.2m boxes instead. Then you can build your compost empire at the pace and volume you wish to have it.

It takes about two days to do – a comfortable weekend’s work.

Day 1: Make your middle bits

First, cut your boards. I used 15cm planks (they’re about 2.2cm wide).

For the entire three-bay set of compost bins you will need:

12 x 1.2m boards for the two central dividers

6 x 1.2m boards and 6 x 1.22m boards for the two ends (all will become clear)

and 14 x 1m lengths of 5cm x 5cm uprights

3 x 2.5m boards plus 3 x 1.5m boards for the back

18 x 1.2m boards to slot into the front

You’ll also need a lot of 50cm (2″) nails, plus a few 75cm (3″) nails too; and a drill to pre-drill the holes and prevent the wood from splitting.

Make the two central dividers.

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Boards nailed onto single uprights for the central dividers

Space two of the uprights 1.2m apart on the ground, then nail six of the boards to them, using a spacer to leave a gap between each board. This spacer can be any width you want as long as you use the same spacer throughout: I find a scrap bit of plank is ideal.

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An offcut of board (approx 2cm) works well as a spacer

Next, nail another upright onto the other side of the planks at each end (you’ll need to use the 75cm nails for this bit). And finally, nail a second upright behind the first on each side at the front of your divide: the gap should be about 3cm (this is to slot the removable planks into).

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Uprights in place (here for a divider – the ends only have the uprights on one side). The 3cm slots formed at the front will hold the removable boards.

Make the two ends.

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End boards nailed into place, showing the ‘staggered’ effect of using different length boards – the back will be fitted onto here

These are made in just the same way as the central dividers, with a couple of little added extras.

First – you alternate between 1.2m boards fitting snugly to the uprights, and 1.22m boards to overlap by a couple of centimetres to allow the back to fit on neatly. If you find this a bit fancy, don’t worry: just make them all the same length and adjust the back accordingly in part 2.

Second: because they’re the ends, you don’t need to put uprights on both sides, just the ‘inside’. It helps to stand them up to work out which side to put the extra uprights on: one end should have the double uprights at the front on the right-hand side of the boards (looking at them end-on), while the other end should have them on the left-hand side. Both have an inside upright at the back as well.

Now you have your kit of parts, you can install your compost bins. For which you need…

Part 2!

Putting Biochar through its paces

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I’m mostly a peat-free gardener: life’s too short and the world too precious to ruin a peat bog for beans and lettuces, and besides I kind of accidentally started peat-free (long before it became a hot topic in gardening) so I learned to garden without peat without even particularly knowing the environmental implications. You do treat peat-free composts differently: they’re more open, for one thing, so I’m used to watering my pot-grown seedlings a little more often. I had a go at growing stuff in a peat-based compost once, just to see if I was missing out on anything, and everything drowned.

But that word ‘mostly’ is in there for a reason. I’ve never been able to escape the use of peat in seed composts: I’m kind of fussy about what I start my seeds in, mainly because it can be the difference between modest success and abject failure, so I’ve always taken the safe course of action and plumped for John Innes seed compost blends. These are soil based – but they also have a proportion of peat. I’ve not been able to find out what proportion (compost makers are notoriously cagey about exactly what goes into their recipes) though some John Innes style mixes give it at one part sphagnum moss peat to two parts loam. Still too much for comfort as far as I’m concerned.

I had been turning a blind eye to this, reasoning (slightly uneasily) that since I don’t use as much seed compost as potting compost in an average year it was only a small proportion of the compost I get through. I’ve been stewing up a plan to make my own as an alternative, but haven’t quite got the leafmould together yet (one year done, one year left to do) and I never have enough garden compost.

And then I came across Carbon Gold. It’s got two very of-the-moment things in it: the first is mycorrhizal fungi, which is to say types of fungal organism which can form symbiotic relationships with roots, plugging them in to the soil around them so they access nutrients and moisture better. And the other is biochar: basically, charcoal.

Biochar comes in soil improver as well as seed composts; it acts like a sponge in soils, absorbing moisture and opening up the soil (rather like any kind of organic matter). And best of all, it acts like a carbon sink – so you’re doing your little tiny bit to help the environment by gardening, instead of carving it up.

I thought all this sounded rather wonderful: so I decided to try it out for myself and see if it really worked as a seed compost (the acid test: whatever it’s got in it, there’s no point in using a seed compost if your seeds don’t actually grow in it). And I (or rather the hubster) filmed the results: click play for the lowdown, courtesy of the crocus.co.uk Youtube channel.

This month in the garden…

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Almost dry… onions on a rack in the greenhouse

It’s about this time of year I start to resist writing anything about seasons, mists or mellow fruitfulness for fear of falling prey to the ultimate garden writing cliche. But there’s no denying that John Keats caught autumn firmly in his poetical fingers with this one: we haven’t got vines running round our thatch-eaves (we’ve been told not to grow stuff against the house as it causes damp on the inside) and the squirrels nick all the hazel shells long before they plump, but basically that’s autumn, right there.

What Keats failed to mention was the frantic gardener racing around like a thing possessed underneath the moss’d cottage trees desperately trying to get everything done (and catch up on all the stuff she didn’t manage in the ever-hectic school summer holidays) before it all gets too cold, wet and depressing to want to be outside any more. Here are just some of the things I’ve got on my jam-packed to-do list this month:

Drying off the onions: In my greenhouse, right now, turning a lovely coppery shade of brown. They take around two weeks of regular turning before they’re cooked and ready to plait.

Sowing sweet peas: My sweet peas were an abject failure last year, so I’m trying a different method this year. I’m reverting to the old-fashioned method of six seeds to a 10cm pot, planted out as a clump – and I won’t pinch out till spring.

Clearing spent crops: It’s that time of year when you have to admit things are definitely, undeniably Over. So it’s with a little sadness that I’ll be cutting the beans off their poles and carting them off to the compost heap. Sniff.

Mulching, mulching, mulching: Another relentless tick of the clock: each veg bed gets a thick coating of compost or soil improver from the local green waste people the moment it’s cleared, then I cover with black plastic. End of the year: full stop.

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Did you ever see such a shade of red? ‘Firetongue’ borlotti beans ready for drying

Drying borlotti beans: Gorgeous brilliant red ‘Firetongue’ climbing borlottis are my comfort and joy right now: every time I see them on the poles I think how beautiful they look. But they’re now ready to hoick out of the ground and dry under cover.

Sowing overwintering broad beans: Aquadulce Claudia are the only ones for me: they may be ungainly, but they’re prolific and rock-solid reliable. It’ll be my only crop – overwintering broad beans avoid all the pests and diseases that afflict spring sowings.

Putting in my bulb order: It’s the gardening equivalent of a trolley dash: you have till the end of this month to go mad on daffodils, species tulips (my latest obsession), posh tulips and reticulate irises. Happy sigh.

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‘Oy, you! Turn red!’ There. That should do it.

Speaking sternly to my tomatoes: They have another four weeks to ripen, then that’s it, so I’ll be reading them the riot act this month (and praying for some late sunshine). Failing that, there’s always green tomato chutney.

Clearing greenhouse borders: In the other greenhouse the cucumbers are sighing to a yellowish end, and the peppers are picked. Let’s not mention the aubergine. Not sure what to do with the cucamelons which have awkwardly decided now is the time to start pumping out the fruit. They’re in rude health and not going anywhere.

Planting winter salads: In the coldframe are dozens of winter salad plants: this season I have mizuna, American land cress, pak choi and ‘Winter Density’ lettuce, all destined for the emptying greenhouse borders, or a cloche outdoors. Time to plant.

Splitting the difference

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Bother. My tomatoes have gone and split on me.

This, of course, is my own silly fault. Tomatoes split for just one reason: the water content of the fruit has been allowed to fall, then all of a sudden someone has come along and guiltily overcompensated with the hose, so flooding the fruits with water. Result: the skins have to expand so rapidly to accommodate all that extra moisture that they can’t cope, and they split. It’s not the end of the world – you can still eat them, though you have to be quick about it before the mould sets in. But it is very annoying.

Splitting (along with blossom end rot, caused by a similar set of circumstances) is a daily risk you run outdoors: you have no control over rainfall of course (I wish) so a sudden downpour after a drought produces exactly the right conditions to split all your fruit. In a greenhouse under cover, where these were grown, there’s simply no excuse. Except bone idleness on the part of a hose-shy gardener, of course.

Some tomato varieties are resistant to splitting: ‘Maskotka’, ‘Terenzo’ and ‘Orkado’ are just three of those which take longer to give way than others, so they’re very well worth trying outdoors given our current yo-yoing weather conditions.

But generally I find tomatoes resistant to splitting have thick, chewy skins – partly no doubt what helps them put up with inconsistent water levels without cracking. And I do like a tomato with a thin skin.

The ones in the pic are ‘Suttons Everyday’, a 1930s heirloom cultivar I was given to try out along with a lot of other heirloom tomatoes. It’s a fine tomato: medium sized, good flavour, great all-rounder as the name would suggest: and with lovely thin skins, which need careful handling if they’re to stay intact.

The current plan is to install automatic watering next year: I have my eye on the Irrigatia solar-powered pump, which works out of a water butt and sensibly powers its battery only when the sun is out and you need the extra water. Inspired. I shall report back, so watch this space.