For various reasons – some avoidable, some not – I neglected my kitchen garden this year. So I sowed seed too late, or not at all, or I forgot to protect the emerging seedlings from slug damage or to transplant them in good time. To compound these failings, I weeded and hoed less than I should have, with the result that any plants that stoically survived sporadically disappeared under fast-growing carpets of groundsel, shepherd’s purse, nettles and chickweed that appeared almost overnight.
For that reason, this week’s column is a mea culpa, mea maxima culpa of sorts, but it’s also a celebration of the fact that autumn’s arrival allows us to put a growing year’s failings behind us, safe in the knowledge that tomorrow is another day. So if this was the summer that your potatoes succumbed to blight, your lettuce bolted and your cabbage plants were reduced to skeletal remains by caterpillars, just chalk it up to experience, because the great thing about autumn in the garden is that not only is it a time for endings, but also for new beginnings.
Let’s start with those weeds. Don’t, whatever you do, use weed-killer. Instead, hoe them, pull them, flame them or, if you’re dealing with an area where weeds have completely run riot, chop/strim them back (remove and bag any seedheads first) before mulching the area with manure and then covering it with black plastic sheeting. By this I mean the strong, thick, polythene sheeting that farmers use to bale silage and which you can buy in rolls from good hardware shops, rather than flimsy refuse bags.
To prevent it from working its way loose in a winter gale, pull it taut and then shallowly bury the edges. Left on the ground until next spring, it will do a great job of killing off most weeds, leaving behind only the most stubborn perennial kinds. Even these will be so weakened that you should be able to dig them out with relative ease.
Effective weed-control aside, let’s talk about those empty vegetable beds. The good news is that there are a variety of tasty food crops that can be sown or planted in October and early November to harvest next year. Onions, for example, including the ultra-hardy varieties Radar and Troy, and shallots, their milder-flavoured cousins, recommended varieties of which include Jermor and Griselle.
Another is garlic, which needs a lengthy growing period and low temperatures in order to crop well. Varieties suitable for autumn planting include Vallelado, Red Duke, Lautrec Wight, Cristo, Thermidrome’, Marco and Solent Wight.
All of these bulbous plants are members of the onion family and need a fertile, free-draining, weed-free soil in full sun. A sunny raised bed recently cleared of its summer crops, for example, is ideal. Just make sure to replace lost nutrients with the addition of some homemade compost and a sprinkling of dried seaweed powder. Some gardeners also add a little slow-release organic granular fertiliser, ideally rich in phosphorus, to encourage good bulb formation.
In the case of onions and shallots, plant these as young disease-free setts to a depth where the tips are barely below the ground. In the case of garlic, break up the bulbs into individual cloves, discarding any that are pitted or mouldy, before planting them just deep enough that the tips are covered with a 3cm-thick layer of soil.
Broad beans are yet another tasty food crop that will grow well in milder gardens from seed sown this month. Either sow directly into the ground or into root-trainers (my preferred method) for transplanting once the young seedlings have developed a strong root system. Recommended varieties include the ultra-hardy Super Aquadulce.
Early cropping varieties of peas will also do well from an autumn sowing, including Douce Provence, Meteor, Feltham First and Kelvedon Wonder. Just like broad beans, I prefer to sow these into root-trainers to transplant once established. Either way, take precautions against slugs as well as mice, as the latter will steal the tasty seed.
In mild gardens, it is also worth quickly sowing some of the hardier winter lettuce varieties such as Winter Gem, as well as lamb’s lettuce, spinach and oriental leaves. If sowing seed directly outdoors, a cloche or loose cover of garden fleece secured in the same way as the black plastic sheeting will help greatly with germination and growth. Again, take precautions against slug damage.
Finally, these vegetables aside, late autumn is also a great time to plant rhubarb, recommended varieties of which include Timperley Early, Hawke’s Champagne and the autumn-cropping Livingstone. This large long-lived perennial likes a very fertile, well-drained but moisture-retentive soil in a sunny, weed-free spot, away from the shade and root systems of established trees or shrubs. Adding a few bucketloads of manure and/or garden compost to the soil before planting will make it extra happy. And happy plants, as we all know, make for happy gardeners.
This week in the garden . . . Summer-flowering containers are well past their best, so remove any spent annuals and put them on the compost heap. For a cheerful spring display, replace the top 25cm of soil/compost and then fill the space with some spring flowering bedding plants underplanted with spring bulbs. Wallflowers, for example, will give a welcome splash of colour and add the important element of scent, while forget-me-nots mingle well with almost every shade of narcissus and tulip.
Late October is an excellent time to plant all types of paeonies. Make sure to give these impressively long-lived plants a deep, rich, moisture-retentive but free draining soil, enriched with manure, a little seaweed powder and a handful of slow-release organic granular fertiliser. Both the Itoh hybrids and herbaceous types like a spot in either full sun or light shade, while tree paeonies will tolerate deeper shade. Recommended herbaceous varieties include Buckeye Belle, Florence Nichols and Immaculee, while excellent Itoh varieties include Cora-Louise. Available from most good Irish garden centres and to order from specialist Irish suppliers leamorenursery.com
Autumn is a good time to plant onions, shallots, garlic and rhubarb and to sow seeds of broad beans and peas (see main article). Most good Irish garden centres carry stock of suitable varieties, while recommended online suppliers include greenvegetableseeds.com, brownenvelopeseeds.com, fruithillfarm.com and organiccatalogue.com
Dates For Your Diary: Continuing: Come with Me, I'll Show you Something Beautiful, an exhibition of Verre Eglomisé paintings by the botanical artist Yanny Peters, celebrating the seasonal beauty of her late mother's Wicklow garden and their shared love of nature; Saturday October 22nd, (11am-5.30pm), Burma Fundraiser, a day of tours and lectures at the world-famous Mount Stewart gardens in Co Down, in aid of an upcoming plant-hunting trip where leading Irish horticulturists will follow in the footsteps of Frank Kingdon-Ward.
Speakers include Neil Porteous, head gardener of Mount Stewart, Séamus O' Brien, head gardener of Kilmacurragh, and Jimi Blake of Hunting Brook Gardens, £40, call 028-4278 8387 for details and bookings; also Saturday October 22nd, (10.30-4pm), the annual autumn garden course takes place in Fruitlawn Gardens, Abbeyleix, Co Laois, including lunch. For bookings, see arthurshackleton.com or contact Carol Booth at carolboothgmail.com or 057-873 0146