Towards the end of summer and into autumn activity in the vegetable garden slows down as crops are fully grown and their fruit begins to ripen. Winter brassicas are bedded in till spring and the work demands ease off. Apart from tidying the greenhouse and beds it would seem that there is very little to keep the enthusiastic gardener occupied until the seed catalogues arrive in January. But the winter season is a perfect time to put the garden in order, protect plants that are overwintering and make plans for next year.
With a little planning these jobs can be distributed efficiently throughout the winter to keep the gardener busy and not fall behind with necessary preparations for the forthcoming growing season.
Clean up and clear away any of your pots that are not frost-proof and move them inside to protect them from the winter weather. Give hand tools a good clean, removing any traces of soil and rust before storing them in a dry shed, and replace any that are beyond repair. Tidying the shed beforehand is always a good idea. Sheds and greenhouse should be maintained and repaired now, preferably before winter storms arrive, replacing cracked glass, rotten wood and rusty hinges. Any garden machinery should be serviced and unspent fuel removed before being stored.
There is still horticultural work that can be carried on with during winter. Spring cabbage and other brassicas are sown early in the winter for an early crop while garlic and some varieties of onion are planted around mid-winter. Broad beans are traditionally sown in late autumn to supplement the main crop planted in spring. Bare root trees and bushes, particularly soft-fruit, can be planted out all winter, establishing themselves before the spring growth. Tidy and lightly prune mature trees and secure ties and stakes before the wilder weather arrives. Take the opportunity to divide any perennial plants to increase your stock for next year and plan some summer colour by planting sweet peas and daffodil bulbs.
Many gardeners move indoors and extend the salad growing season by cultivating microgreens. Microgreens are tender, young green vegetables harvested at the first or second leaf stage and used as a culinary ingredient. They are extremely easy to grow and are becoming increasingly popular, requiring little more than an adjustable, reliable light source and some seed trays.
The beds need some attention at this time of the year after the dead plants have been removed. Improve the soil with conditioners to replace any depleted nutrients and help rebuild the structure by adding rich hummus and a good layer of mulch. Raised beds and planters should be checked for damage due to rough handling before being repaired or replaced.
Protecting plants is an important consideration if cold weather is forecast. Wrap up warm and protect plants with a generous layer of horticultural fleece and move portable containers to a sheltered part of the garden. Tender perennials should be lifted and overwintered in the greenhouse and protected with extra insulation or the addition of a hot bed using a soil warming kit. Autumn cuttings and young plants can be protected in a propagator, providing a warm, humid environment promoting healthy root development. If it is impractical to move plants indoors they can be protected in the garden with a cloche or mini-polytunnel. Fruit and strawberries can be protected from ground frost with a layer of straw or broken twigs.
Take the time to consider and plan for next year’s gardening, map out your beds and decide on any planting to coincide with your crop rotation system. Any layout changes can be made well in advance before ordering seed, plant stock or beds and planters. Read up on new plants to grow and their specific requirements and be ready for your gardening year ahead.