While I am not a fan of of winter I do enjoy preparing for it. There is great satisfaction in harvesting and storing crops in October, protecting beds from heavy rain and generally putting the place in order. Unlike jobs done in the busy growing season, October tasks tend to stay done once they are completed with minimal weed growth and very few plants that need looking after.
This article covers the common October tasks in my garden, I hope some of the tips will be relevant for yours.
The Vegetable Garden
Harvesting Maincrop Potatoes I grow organically so don't spray against the inevitable potato blight. Early potatoes tend to be out of the ground before the worst of blight hits in July/August but maincrops will always be affected at some stage. I grow blight resistant varieties which will hold out for longer but are not immune; they will usually remain healthy long enough for the potatoes to bulk up before I cut off and discard all the foliage.
Removing the foliage stops blight from spreading to the tubers (if you get it in time) but it is important to leave the potatoes in the ground until the blight spores on the soil surface have died off, otherwise you will spread them all over your crop. I cover my beds with mypex (landscaping fabric) at this stage to prevent any shallow tubers being exposed to light (and turning green and poisonous) and only dig the potatoes 4 weeks later, usually in late September, early October.
Potato storing tip It is generally not recommended to wash potatoes before storing (this is because damp potatoes are more likely to rot) but if they are dried properly I think clean potatoes are preferable. Stored potatoes need to be checked for rot periodically over the winter as there will always be one or two that succumb and will infect their neighbours. For this reason I use a number of relatively small hessian bags rather than large sacks as there is better air flow, they are easier to check and handier to use in the kitchen. I store the bags in crates in a cool shed with some old curtains over the top to exclude light.
Harvesting Carrots Depending on how well drained your soil is you can either leave maincrop carrots in the ground over winter or harvest and store them. I usually harvest and store as 'freshly picked' sounds wonderful until it's dark, wet and cold and you have to go outside to dig them up.
The reason root vegetables go spongy is because they loose their moisture so they need to be stored in boxes or buckets of slightly damp sand or compost to keep them firm. I built a large wooden box in a cool shed where I can store carrots, beetroot or other root crops in a sand/compost mix which works perfectly. Vegetables should be added in layers separated by the compost mix so they aren't touching each other.
Not Harvesting Parsnips The only root crops I leave in the ground are parsnips as their flavour improves with a touch of frost (their starch converts to sugar and so they get sweeter). Keep an eye out for canker, you will see a rusty colour rot starting around the shoulder of the parsnip. Harvest any showing signs of the disease, they are fine to eat once the affected tops have been cut off.
Winter Brassicas Hardy brassicas keep me in healthy greens over the winter, these include kale, winter cabbage, Brussels sprouts and flower sprouts. Cabbage white caterpillars tend to be a problem in September but not so much from October onwards so plants can be pretty much left alone. If Brussels sprouts aren't thriving you can add a little blood fish and bone around the roots in early October (thought this is better done in August/September) to give them a boost.
Both Brussels sprouts and flower sprouts are tall plants so will benefit from staking to avoid them rocking in strong winds and damaging the roots. Wind rock breaks the fine root hairs bringing feed to the plants and can result in lower yields and 'blown' sprouts (when a sprout opens instead of producing a tight little button). Flower sprouts, by the way, are a cross between Brussel's sprouts and kale and are a vegetable I highly recommend; they produce masses of mini kale like plants in the same way as a Brussel's sprout (up the main stem) and have a delicious kale/sprout flavour.
Planting Garlic and Overwintering Onions Early October is the best time to plant garlic for harvesting next June/July. Garlic needs to be grown in full sun in a fertile, well drained soil. If you have a heavy soil it may be better to wait until the Spring or to build raised beds and fill with a suitable soil mix.
Garlic is planted with a spacing of 25cm between plants and 25cm between rows, overwintering onions at 10cm between plants and 25cm between rows. If you would like to watch a video on how to grow garlic from start to finish, please see below.
Garlic planting tip If you have a wood burning stove keep the wood ash as garlic will appreciate the potash (potassium) it contains. The ash can be raked into the soil before planting. Also, as garlic has shallow roots that are easily damaged by weeding, it is a good option to grow through a pre-punched weed protection mat. We produce a garlic or onion weed protection mat for this purpose, I have included links at the bottom of the page.
Move Pumpkins or Squash Indoors Any outdoor squash should be moved indoors in October to ripen otherwise frost will damage the fruit. The flavour of pumpkins stored in a cool, dry place will actually improve rather than deteriorate so there is no rush to eat them straight away.
Feeding and Protecting Soil Looking after your soil is the key to becoming an ace grower, there is no other secret. Healthy soil is bursting with life (a single teaspoon holds over a billion bacteria) which process organic matter (anything that was once alive) and transforms it into food for your plants. David Attenborough said in his recent documentary "look after nature and nature will look after you", the same applies in your garden - look after your soil and your soil will look after your plants (which in turn will look after you).
You can build up and feed your soil by adding organic matter in the form of manure, garden compost, seaweed or leaf mould to the surface and letting it rot down over the winter. Feeding mulches also help protect the soil from heavy rain and prevent nutrients from being washed out as well as covering weed seeds and preventing them from germinating.
Autumn/Winter Soil Feed Products I understand that I am lucky to be able to get my hands on organic manure and seaweed and that most gardeners don't have that luxury. We are able to supply bagged organic horse manure as well as seaweed meal which, although it doesn't have the bulk of fresh seaweed, will do the same job. For a good winter dressing I would recommend a dressing of 'Seafeed' seaweed meal covered with a layer of 'Gee-Up' horse manure and Envirogrind compost (pictured above, links at the bottom of the page).
Ideally, you should also have your own homemade compost to add, if you don't I would seriously consider starting a compost bin, it will pay dividends. If you have a damp winter climate I would also be inclined to cover the whole lot with black plastic as below.
Covering with Mypex or Black Plastic Although the nutrients contained in organic matter are far less soluble than chemical fertilisers, they will break down over time and can also be washed out of the soil. If, like me, you live in an area of high rainfall I would also advise covering your beds with a black plastic sheet like 'Mypex' landscaping fabric to prevent this happening. A good landscape fabric is UV stabilised so won't leach chemicals into your soil. I understand it might seem odd adding plastic sheets to your garden but it is probably the 'greener' thing to do in the long run rather than wasting nutrients and possibly polluting groundwater.
Making your own Garden Compost As above, adding organic matter is the best thing you can do for your garden so you really need to go hammer and tongs at making your own compost, you can never have too much. Making compost is all about finding the right balance of materials so don't be put off if you have not had success in the past. If you would to read more on making compost I have included a link for more information below:
As temperatures drop, most compost bins or piles will slow down or stop working altogether. This is because heat is needed to keep the compost process going, you can still keep adding material but not a lot will happen until next Spring. I overcome this problem by using an insulated compost bin (the Joraform JK270) which I also move into the polytunnel in the winter to keep it as warm as possible.
An insulated bin will be a little cooler and therefore slower in the winter due to lower ambient temperatures and less nitrogen (heat generating) materials being available but it will still be relatively quick (120 instead of 60/90 days). If I want to heat up my compost bin and speed up decomposition I give the lawn a quick cut and add the mowings as they contain the nitrogen needed to get going again.
The Fruit Garden
My autumn raspberries finish fruiting in October which marks the end of the season in my fruit cage. There is a little bit of tidying up to do but the majority of the pruning is left until March, just before the season takes off again. The only exception is summer raspberries which should be thinned out in October if they haven't been done already (you can do them immediately after fruiting).
Summer and autumn raspberries are pruned in a different ways and at different times as follows:
Autumn fruiting canes - Autumn fruiting raspberries are pruned in late February-early March by cutting back all the canes to ground level. New growth will follow which can be tied to support wires as they grow.
Summer fruiting canes - Summer varieties can be pruned when fruiting has finished in July or left until October/November. It is easier to prune just after fruiting as the difference between old and new stems is more obvious, you can see new green stems and old brown ones in the image above. Summer raspberries bear fruit on canes grown the previous year; the new stems from the current year will provide the fruit for the following season while this years fruiting canes should be pruned out down to soil level.
Raising new raspberry plants October is also a good time to propagate new raspberry plants to fill out your rows. Simply ease out any small shoots (known as 'suckers') growing around your rows, cut from the parent root and re-plant. You do not need to give the newly planted shoots any special treatment other than a pinch of blood fish and bone as raspberries are tough and will root again easily.
Planting bare root fruit Fruit trees and bushes are best planted in late October/early November when dormancy begins but there is still some warmth in the soil. There are a huge range of options with bush and tree fruit that can be planted now and will give many years of fruit with very little looking after.
Ripening tomatoes - There will still be a few unripe, green tomatoes on the polytunnel vines in October which I want to give the best chance of ripening. I usually remove all the foliage in mid September but if you haven't done so it's worth stripping the plants of all their leaves now to remove any shade from the fruit. Any tomatoes that haven't ripened by the end of October can be brought inside and placed in a paper bag with a ripe banana, the banana gives off ethylene gas which helps the tomatoes to ripen.
Drying Chillis Chillis are easily damaged by frost so as October is moving along I harvest all the fruit left in the tunnel and bring them inside to dry. The chillis above are ripe and drying happily on thread in my kitchen window but I will also be harvesting any unripe green ones to ripen in the same way. The method, which looks fiddly but only takes 10 minutes, is to run a needle and thread through the stalks and hang them up somewhere warm and dry.
Winter Crops The polytunnel can be frustrating leading up to October as you will be anxious to get new plants started but still have summer crops taking up space. The trick is to sow in modules in early/mid September so you have 4 week old seedlings ready to plant in October when cucumbers, courgettes, tomatoes and chilis can be cleared.
It is also not too late so sow hardy winter salads in October which include claytonia, corn salad, rocket, mustard greens, mizuna, spinach and coriander. You can sow directly into your beds or start in modular trays for planting at the end of the month. Cold tolerant winter salad crops will keep you in healthy greens right through till next spring. Growth will be very slow in mid winter so make sure you sow enough to pick a small amount from each plant.
Garlic in the Polytunnel Garlic is traditionally grown outside but can also be grown in the polytunnel for an early crop next year. Tunnel grown garlic is ready to harvest in May, just before your tomato plants are planted into your beds so don't worry about taking up valuable summer space. You can also plant overwintering onions in the tunnel if you have the room, they will also be ready in May and will bridge a hand gap while you are waiting for your outdoor onions to ripen.
Watering The polytunnel needs very little watering from October onwards, once a week a week is more than sufficient. It is important to ventilate the tunnel as much as possible by leaving the doors partly open on warm days, this will help avoid the build up fo any fungal diseases.
The Flower Garden
If there was one 'no brainer' in the grading world it would have to be planting spring flowering bulbs in October. Planting bulbs takes very little time and is as good as guaranteed to be a success. It is well worth dropping in a few around the vegetable garden to give you a pep in your step when the season begins again next year. The photo above is my garden in March/April this year with garlic in the foreground and tulip 'White Triumphator' in the bed behind which looks lovely with the big pile of messy hose to the right. Tidy up before you take the photos Andrew!
That's it for now, I'll see you next week