Already the nights are drawing in and there is a distinct freshness in the morning air. These early signs of autumn lead many of us to think about the forthcoming winter and what it will bring, especially after the extraordinarily wild and wet weather of last winter. But whatever comes our way in the next few months, it really won’t be all that long before spring is back again.
Maintaining soil fertility
Whilst pottering round the garden harvesting peas and beans and collecting seeds to save, I am already thinking about the promise of next year’s spring. When it does arrive, I want the garden to be in the best possible condition; fertile and ready for that rush of new energy.
First and foremost that means taking care of the soil. A bare patch of soil devoid of plants is very vulnerable to erosion and loss of fertility. But when there are plants in the patch their roots conduct mutually beneficial exchanges with soil organisms. The roots exude sugars and other compounds in exchange for a variety of readily absorbed minerals and other nutrients. In addition, the physical presence of plants prevents winter rains, snow and ice from eroding the soil and leaching nutrients. Remove plants and you remove nature’s way of protecting the landscape and its fertility.
An empty vegetable plot is a bit of a sad sight and it would be a shame to leave the soil bare as now is the just the right time for some more sowing. The winter hardy spring onion ‘White Lisbon’ , leaves like lamb’s lettuce, land cress and claytonia, and oriental options such as mizuna, mibuna and mustard greens ‘Green in the Snow’ or ‘Red Giant’ can all be sown now. Sprinkle seeds thinly in rows or broadcast them on a patch.
One easy-to-grow choice for over winter is broad bean ‘Aquadulce Claudia’. If sown directly into the ground in autumn they flower in early spring and crop by the end of the season. Broad bean flowers are lovely and attract the bees.
Garlic can also be planted now as it needs the cold in order to divide into separate cloves. It is usually recommended to buy certified virus free garlic from nurseries or garden centres, but I usually plant organic cloves from the supermarket. So far I have not encountered any problems in doing this, although it is a bit of a leap of faith.
Some onion and shallot varieties are available as sets to plant in autumn, for example onion ‘Shakespeare’ and shallot ‘Yellow Moon’.
Green manures are one way to tide the garden over until the spring; they make a living cover sustaining soil life for the duration. The choice of green manures suitable for the colder months of the year includes red clover, winter tares (sown by September), forage rye, Italian rye grass (sown by October), field beans and forage pea (sown by November). Each of these bring different benefits so it is best to do a bit of research about the right options for your garden. I usually grow field beans and am planning to add winter tares, red clover and forage peas into the mix.
If you don’t want to use a green manure or plant more vegetables you can plant some spring bulbs (even in the vegetable patch). They will be actively growing for at least some of the time and will be a clear signal of the ending of winter. Otherwise there is the option of covering the soil with a mulch of compost or other organic material. This has less benefit than a living cover of plants but it will feed some of the soil-based organisms and provide some protection against erosion and nutrient loss.
Making plans and looking for inspiration
With the wellbeing of the garden taken care of for the time being I can make plans. Mulling over what has worked and what has not worked this year will give me the basis of my planning for next year. The best thing I did last spring was to create a new polyculture bed for perennial vegetables, herbs and flowers. I sowed seeds directly into upturned turf and moved some plants from other places. Since then I have mulched the bed heavily with green materials such as lawn cuttings and hedge trimmings as they became available. My partner grew flowers in the patch where the turf had been taken up so we were both happy with the outcome. We will repeat this again next year to create more areas for both flowers and polycultures.
As I seek inspiration for new ideas I will be reading lots of blogs. I love to read about people beavering away with their projects and interests, whether it be enthusiastic posts about new discoveries or wry reflections on disappointments. Bloggers seem to tell things as they are, rather than dress them up for public consumption, which makes their shared experiences easy to relate to.
By the time spring comes these various elements will have fused themselves into a plan in my head, together with copious notes and references and orders placed with seed and plant suppliers. I will sift and sort my saved seeds, cherish my newly purchased seeds and duly invigorated I will go into the garden to learn afresh