Get ready for winter

It might be mid-October but that doesn’t mean it’s time to lay down tools. Instead, here are 10 very good reasons to get busy in the garden this week . . .

Sat, Oct 19, 2013, 01:00

SPICK AND SPAN . . . It’s time to get those vegetable beds in tip-top condition for the winter. Start by lifting, storing and clearing away finished crops, before chopping up the spent foliage and recycling it in the compost heap. The same goes for weeds (unless they’ve set seed, in which case I nip the seed-heads off, bag them separately and bin them).

Once upon a time, the traditional advice given to gardeners was to dig beds over in autumn and leave the bare soil exposed to winter rains and frost, but this causes erosion and leaching of nutrients. Instead, clothe bare soil with a mulch of seaweed, compost or manure (some gardeners like to cover these with a further layer of black plastic), or grow an overwintering green manure; nitrogen-fixing field beans can be sown until the end of October (available from thesecretgardener.com) and then dug back into the ground in spring to feed the soil.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT . . . Keeping in mind crop rotation, get sets of overwintering onions in the ground now for a usefully early ‘gap’-filling crop that can be harvested next June. Plant these sun-loving bulbous vegetables 15cm apart, in rows 30cm apart, and into well-prepared, weed-free, free-draining soil that hasn’t been freshly-manured, positioning the sets pointy tip up so that they’re barely peeking above soil. Suitable varieties include the bolt-resistant ‘Radar’ and ‘Shakespeare’.

KEEP THE VAMPIRES AWAY . . . Now is also the perfect time to plant garlic (another member of the allium family, which likes the same growing conditions as onions). Softneck varieties suitable for over-wintering include ‘Marco’, ‘Cristo’ and ‘Thermidrome’, all of which produce fat, flavoursome bulbs. Plant the individual crescent-shaped cloves 15cm apart and in rows 45cm apart, pointy tips up and covered by a 3cm layer of soil.

GOODBYE SUMMER . . . Those balmy September and early October temperatures mean that late-summer flowering perennials and annuals have been performing spectacularly well for months now. But if it hasn’t already arrived, frost is surely only just around the corner, meaning it’s time to move tender plants under cover. As for dahlias, unless you are one of life’s risk-takers and/or live in a mild area, then lift them as soon the first hard frost has blackened their leaves.

Cut away the dead foliage to about 15cm above soil level, gently dig up the fleshy, sausage-shaped tubers and label before washing off the loose soil and placing them upside-down in a frost-free shed for a couple of weeks to dry out. Once they are dry, pack them into crates and cover with an insulating layer of dry compost before placing them somewhere cool and dark, but frost-free. Those who like to live dangerously can leave tubers in the ground and protect with a deep mulch of manure or compost.

THE EARLY BIRD . . . Order bare-root fruit trees, bushes, canes now while stocks are high, so that you have the widest choice. Specialist Irish stockists include Irish Seed Savers (irishseedsavers.ie), Fruit and Nut (fruitandnut.ie), Woodkerne (woodkerne.net), and Future Forests (futureforests.net). Remember that while bare-root plants can be planted anytime from November until late March, some nurseries will take orders now but not deliver until spring.

TOMATO-TASTIC . . . It’s been a glorious year for tomatoes, to the point where the nation’s larders are now generously stocked with jars of chutneys, ketchups and preserves while freezers are brimming with neatly-labelled bags of passata. But before you eat the last of this year’s crop, consider saving seed of some of your favourites. Of the eight tomato varieties I grew this year, five came as seed gifted to me by other gardeners while another (the hugely productive, yellow-fruiting ‘Polen’) came via Cork-based Brown Envelope Seeds (brownenvelopeseeds.com), from seed saved by its founder Madeline McKeever. The process is simple, albeit a little whiffy.

Start by squeezing the juice and seed of the ripe fruit into a container, leave it in a warm place for about three days to ferment (this removes the sticky coating), then top up the smelly mixture with water and shake vigorously. Collect any seeds that settle to the bottom, rinse them well several times, place them on a plate and leave them to dry in a warm room out of direct sunshine. Once they are completely dry, store them in a cool, dry place in a damp-proof, labelled container.

BULBOUS BEAUTIES . . . If you want a colourful display of flowering spring bulbs, then this is the month to plant them in the ground or into pots. The only exception are tulips: planted too early into warm damp soil, the bulbs are at risk from a disease known as tulip fire blight, so I prefer to wait until November. But do order/buy them now while stocks are high. Specialist Irish stockists include Mr Middleton (mrmiddleton.com), Wild About Bulbs (heritagebulbs.com) and Beechill Bulbs (bulbs.ie).

MAKE HASTE . . . Spring bedding plants such as wallflowers, Bellis perennis and violas need to get in the ground as soon as possible so they can establish a vigorous root system.

SCENTS OF SUMMER . . . October is the best month to sow seed of sweet pea (see last week’s Grow column); the resulting plants will be far more vigorous, floriferous and early flowering.

SEEDS OF SUMMER . . . Along with saving seed of tomatoes and other vegetables, October is also a good month to save the seed of many flowering perennials and annuals, including species of eryngium, Kirengeshoma palmata, agastache, Phlomis russeliana, Nigella damascena, Calendula officinalis and Centaurea cyanus. Concentrate on species rather than on named cultivars, which don’t always come true, or F1 hybrids (which never will). Harvest ripe seed on a dry, still day, placing seedheads/pods/ berries into a clearly labelled paper bag. Seed preparation techniques (threshing, winnowing, fermentation) will vary according to the plant. For a detailed and informative guide to both the practice and politics of seed-saving, get your hands on a copy of
Seedswap: The Gardener’s Guide to Saving and Swapping Seeds by Josie Jeffery (Ivy Press).

DIARY DATES
Wednesday October 23rd: Wesley House, Leeson Park, Dublin 6 at 8pm. RHSI lecture by Christine Skelmersdale of Broadleigh Bulbs, Somerset, ‘Using Bulbs in the Garden’, in conjunction with the IGPS. See irishgardenplantsociety.com.
October 25th-November 2nd: Kiltrea Bridge Pottery’s annual sale. See kiltreapottery.com.

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