October in the garden
The days are getting shorter, the nights longer and plant growth is slowing down. Cool nights begin and soon night frosts will be a regular occurrence as nature settles down to a long rest. But fruits are still ripening, plants are maturing and seeds can still be sown even if their development is quite slow.
Fallen leaves make excellent compost so try and find a spare corner to make a dedicated leaf collection area. To make a leaf compost bin, you’ll need a length of chicken wire and four stout posts. Knock the posts firmly into the ground to form a square or rectangle, then secure the chicken wire to three posts, putting a fastening on the fourth post and the end of the wire so you have access to deposit your collected leaves. The leaves will gradually rot down; it can take a year, although adding grass cuttings helps speed the process up. Use the crumbly leaf mould on your beds in the autumn to suppress weeds, condition the soil, retain moisture in dry soils and open up heavy soils. Recently, I’ve seen some biodegradeable netting bags which you just fill with leaves then put in an out-of-the-way corner of the garden: the whole lot rots down without the need to make a retaining compost bin. Or, simply fill a dustbin sack with damp leaves, pierce some holes in the sack then leave as before
As ground becomes vacant, clear away rubbish and begin the autumn digging and trenching. The key is getting rid of weeds before the winter weather arrives, otherwise these will mostly survive over winter and harbour pests and diseases. As the weather cools down, raking leaves is a good way to warm yourself up. Mulch bare plots after clearing. Protect any late crops with fleece, cloches or other protective covering. Trim away any yellowing leaves from cabbages and sprouts and put on the compost heap. Examine all your stored crops for signs of rotting and disease, removing any decaying items.
Prepare your planting holes for new orchard fruits and dig over plots earmarked for new raspberry, currant or gooseberry plants. Continue to gather and store apples and pears, and put grease bands into position around orchard tree trunks. If you haven’t already done so, cut out all canes that have fruited this year from raspberries, blackberries, loganberries and related plants, and tie in young canes. Clear any weeds away from the base of bushes and trees.
If you sowed onion seeds last month, these can be thinned, but take care not to disturb the remaining seedlings. Corn salad and dwarf early peas can be sown in a warm, sheltered border. Sow winter lettuces and other winter salad crops, like lamb’s lettuce: you may need cloches to protect these over the winter. Also, it’s the last chance to plant out cabbage seedlings this month: any plants not set out now should be left in the nursery bed over the winter.
As your plots are cleared you should also sow a green manure such as clover or rye grass to cover ground until next spring. Green manures will help prevent weeds establishing, and once dug into the ground the following spring they help return nutrients to the soil, helping the fertility of your plot.
Clear away all peas and beans now and harvest any outstanding summer crops such as beetroot. If you haven't already lifted your main potato crop, dig this up just before the first frosts are due, to allow tubers to harden more in the ground which will prolong their keeping.
All fruit should be harvested as it becomes ripe, with apples and pears stored in a cool but not frosty place. Fruits should be unblemished and not damaged: make sure they aren t stored touching each other and wrap individually in newspaper or tissue paper if you can.
Philippa Pearson is a professional horticulturist and gardener, and she looks after a large estate in Hertfordshire amongst other projects. A keen and passionate gardener all her life, Philippa lives in rural Cambridgeshire where her ever increasing organically maintained vegetable and fruit garden provide a year round harvest of interesting crops, despite being on heavy clay.