In the garden, it’s August: the pumpkins are swelling, the beans are coming thick and fast, and I’m feasting on courgettes, tomatoes and cucumbers.
But in my head, it’s October, or maybe November, and I’m thinking about my winter salad supply.
As the lovely students on my course, Self-Sufficient Veg Gardening will tell you, I’m big on planning. Stay one step ahead of the season and you’ll give yourself the best chance of a veg plot that’s pumping out the produce month after month, all year round.
So right now, though the summer harvest is in full swing, I’m pulling out the seed trays and taking to the potting bench again to get my winter greens under way. At this time of year seeds germinate quickly, and there’s time for them to grow to picking size by November, when the cold weather hits. Continue reading…
Harvesting this month: French beans, carrots, the last of the courgettes and patty pan summer squash, Musquee de Provence winter squash, potatoes (maincrops to store), raspberries, curled-leaf and flat-leaf parsley, baby-leaf salads from pots outside the back door.
Sowing this month: Broad beans for overwintering, beetroot (for leaves), turnips (for leaves), spring onions, and round-rooted carrots.
This month I will be:
Clearing out the greenhouses
Pricking out greenhouse salad seedlings
Turning the compost
Mulching empty beds
Planting herbs and perennial vegetables
Juicing the last of the apples (mine and other people’s!)
Remember my poor mouse-beheaded beetroot seedlings from last month?
The obvious solution was to trap the mice – and that’s certainly what I would have done before I became aware of the need for sustainability in the garden.
I don’t like killing things at the best of times: and with mice in particular they’re a really important food source for larger predators like owls, so every mouse that you trap is one removed from the wider ecosystem.
Also mouse traps are, usually, plastic, and I have vowed not to buy any new plastic for my garden (even if it’s not strictly for gardening).
The wildlife photographer Simon King once said to me that we humans are really, really clever animals: so if we can’t figure out a way to keep other animals away from our food without killing them, we’re not thinking hard enough.
Quite right: so I put my humanoid thinking cap on, and this is what I came up with.
I bought myself a big roll of 8mm gauge mesh from B&Q for about £20 and made myself a mesh cloche (the roll was big enough to make two or three, but one step at a time).
It took a while to get right: I had to staple the bottom edges to wooden battens, burying these in the ground to hold the whole thing stable and prevent mice from burrowing underneath, and the ends are squares of mesh tied in with wire, again buried a few inches beneath the ground.
But I resowed my beetroot seeds at the beginning of the month and they are already much bigger than they ever reached last month before the mice got them. It’s tricky to get in and weed, but I sow into mulch so the few weeds that have come up aren’t too troublesome. Once the seedlings have developed into sturdy young plants, of less interest to mice, I will remove the whole cloche and stash it to use elsewhere. It should last me several years of mouse-free sowing.
The big greenhouse clearout
That’s it: time to admit defeat. I had a good pick over of the last tomatoes to cook down and freeze, and now the plants are undeniably finished. They’ll go onto the compost heap (I had a spot of blight during the season where the rain got inside the greenhouse – but even blighted foliage can be composted as the disease doesn’t survive once the foliage breaks down).
Once the toms are out I’ll give the glass a good wash, then weed out the borders and refresh with a good thick (5cm/2″) mulch of garden compost before replanting with greenhouse salads (see below). My only dilemma is that I can’t bear to pull up those lovely French marigolds just yet; I sowed them back in February and they’ve been flowering their socks off all summer, no deadheading required. I guess the salads will just have to go in behind them till they’re done.
Pricking out salads
All the salad plants I sowed last month are now big sturdy seedlings and ready to move on into their own individual newspaper pots (the above are Winter Density lettuce (left) and mizuna (right)).
I’m a big fan of newspaper pots: zero plastic and pretty much zero carbon (as you’re reusing waste newspaper to make them) and the seedlings do so much better as their roots grow through the sides and don’t circle as they would in plastic. I get much better results from them every year – well worth the extra 15 minutes it takes me to fill a seed tray with paper pots.
The last of the windfalls: I have a lovely little Devonshire Quarrenden apple tree, very early eater with a lovely sweet, strawberry-like flavour. But my only slight problem is that it crops so early in the year – over by about mid-September most years – that I miss all the Apple Days and my windfalls are already long gone before I can juice them.
This year, what with the coronavirus an’ all, Apple Days aren’t really happening – or at least not the ones with the big community juicing events. Luckily, though, I’ve found a friend with access to a scratter, to chop up the windfalls into rough pieces, and a press, to make the juice.
I am taking along my own few remaining windfalls, and scavenging apples from everyone I can think of with a surplus. It’s one of the best ways I know of storing the abundance our apple trees provide: tip the juice into saved plastic litre bottles and freeze, then savour the rich, sweet flavour all through winter. Yum.
Half-finished insulation to the left, not-quite cleared cucamelons to the right: I have, it is fair to say, totally failed to sort out the greenhouse this winter.
Blimey it’s chilly. Inside and out: life got a bit hectic last autumn and I didn’t get around to my usual bubblewrap-insulation-and-greenhouse-heater routine. So my greenhouse – usually a cosy refuge at this time of year – is distinctly less than welcoming at the moment.
However: the decision not to heat the greenhouse this winter, if a little unintentional, has been enlightening. Normally I would have the heater on 24/7 when the weather is like this: I don’t heat my greenhouse to tropical temperatures but I do like to keep it somewhere around the 5°C mark. When it’s -5°C outside, as it was last night, that would mean having to lift the temperature by a whole 10°C above ambient – loading my electricity bill to groaning point and playing who knows what havoc with the environment.
I’ve always felt mildly guilty about heating the greenhouse. As well as being positively profligate with resources I normally shepherd carefully – that is, electricity and warmth – it is very expensive and makes something of a mockery of my pretensions to thriftiness. After all, when your overwintered chillies cost you at least £50 to keep alive in a frosty winter you could probably buy gold-plated ones for less.
But – avert your eyes from the weeds, please – I can’t be going far wrong when I’ve got lemons like these
Failing to heat my greenhouse, though, has been an eye-opener. Just look at my lemons! (No smutty jokes at the back, please). The scented-leaf geraniums have fared well too, and the lemon verbena.
Most of the tender herbs and edibles which I move into the greenhouse over winter to protect them from frost can survive down to a few degrees below. Lemons, for example, can tolerate -5°C; geraniums (pelargoniums), lemon verbena and French tarragon to about -1°C. The secret is to keep them dry. Soggy compost freezes at anything below zero, wrecking delicate root systems, while dry compost, though cold, will not freeze so does no damage.
So I haven’t watered my lemon tree, or the geraniums, since I brought them indoors in early November. They’re fine. So is the grapefruit, and the lemon verbena, and even the Nerine sarniensis which is the only thing in here which isn’t edible but I can’t bear to evict it as it’s so lovely when it flowers. The overwintering chilli (an Aji type, one of the more hardy) has succumbed, so I’d guess that very heat-loving Mexican types with fleshy, tender stems freeze at zero.
I brought my three-pot salad system in here this autumn too: the extra shelter has kept them growing and I’ve had salads to pick since October.
But for most, just bringing them into a greenhouse without heating it has been enough. The glass alone raises temperatures by about 5°C, after all (and much more on a sunny day, though that heat is lost by nightfall). So if you take last night, the coldest here for several years at about -5°C, inside the greenhouse it will still have been only just at freezing. Not enough to do any damage. Line the greenhouse with bubblewrap or – I’m told but haven’t tried myself – cardboard, or wrap plants individually in horticultural fleece, hessian with straw tucked underneath, or more bubblewrap – and you can raise that by a few degrees further, potentially keeping even quite tender plants frost-free without the need for heating.
Other little tricks to try include keeping a pond in the greenhouse to act as a heat sink, absorbing the sun’s heat by day and releasing it by night; and of course hotbeds, which is too big a subject to tackle here but the most natural greenhouse heater you’ll ever have.
But I think my days of artificially heating a greenhouse are over. I’m sure the environment will thank me one day. My bank account certainly will.
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.
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.
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.
Cucamelons are the latest Big Thing in veg growing: everyone seems to have one or two plants about the place somewhere. So I gave it a try this year, at last, after some years of wondering what all the fuss was about.
I’m still wondering, a bit: the main benefit I can see so far is the cute value.
Cucamelons, aka Melothria scabra, are related to cucumbers, but they come from Mexico. There is in fact lots of argument among botanists as to exactly which bit of the cucumber family it should belong in, as it also counts West African gourds in its ancestry: expect one of those annoying name changes before long.
I germinated the seed with ease, some time back in April, and they romped away, making slightly weedy-looking tangles of leaf, stem and tendril. They’re much less hefty than a cucumber: more like an annual climber in habit. As a result, they’re also much more difficult to train, quickly forming unruly nests of impenetrable tangle (in fact I gave up in the end and just tied them to their supports as best I could).
You don’t have to grow them in a greenhouse, as I’ve done: they actually prefer slightly cooler conditions than a cucumber, so are happy outside in a sunny spot, too. I decided to err on the side of caution, though, and popped them in on the opposite side to my much heavier-looking cucumber plants.
They started fruiting about a month ago. Teeny-tiny little watermelons, no more than 3cm long and 1cm across, striped prettily and small enough to pop whole into your mouth. They definitely taste of cucumber, but with a little tang of citrussy lemon that’s really very pleasant.
But snacks, so far, they have remained. They aren’t cropping that heavily at the moment (though we still have a couple of growing months and you never know). I’m a bit nonplussed as to what else to do with them, to be honest: a quick Google tells me you can sprinkle them on salads, serve them in cocktails or among olives as a bar snack, or (better) try them in a salsa – come to think of it they aren’t radically different from tomatilloes in flavour, just smaller. And you can pickle them, too.
Well – ours is not really a bar snack kind of household, so we’re mostly just putting them in lunch boxes and picnics at the moment or just leaving them lying around in bowls for people to pick at. Besides, I haven’t got enough fruits to experiment with different dishes just yet. On the plus side, they’re almost completely pest and disease free – my cukes are just starting to yellow with red spider mite (as they always do at this time of year) yet the cucamelons are still brilliant green and perky. And they’re the kind of thing that grows just about anywhere, so you can just see them dangling from a hanging basket, say, or in a vertical planting system draped down a wall.
But in a good productive patch of loam in your greenhouse? Well, just now, I’m a bit ‘meh’ about them so far. Pretty, yes; curiosity value, tick, and they really are very cute – but I’m slightly resenting having handed them good growing space. I’d rather grow watermelons. Or cucumbers.