You’d think late autumn would be a chance for gardeners to finally put our feet up and relax. But all in good time… there’s a few garden tasks to be finished first, including some very satisfying jobs like growing fresh salads and herbs, and fruit… for free!
1. Let Birds In...Or Keep Them Out
Netting is very handy for keeping birds off fruit such as berries and currants, but as autumn bites and with branches laid bare, it’s time to invite our feathered friends in to do a spot of pest control. Remove netting so they can get in and peck around fruit bushes and canes for overwintering grubs and eggs to leave your soil cleansed for next spring.
In other areas of the garden, it’s time to get the netting on. Sprouting broccoli and other overwintering brassicas are now at the mercy of hungry birds like pigeons, which until now have had plenty of other things to eat. Lay your netting over suitable supports such as bamboo canes with old plastic bottles popped over the top. Drape your netting over the top, and to make sure birds don’t hop in and get trapped beneath it, pin down the edges with tent pegs or similar.
2. Overwinter Peppers
Sweet peppers and chili peppers are warm-season veggies that, with care, will crop year after year. They are normally grown as annuals – sown in spring, harvested in summer, then ditched with the first frosts. But because they are actually perennials they can be overwintered, which will give you bigger plants next season – and even bigger harvests.
Dig up your plants if they’re in the ground, pot them up, then move them inside to a bright windowsill. A cooler, unheated room is often a good place, because the plants need to rest during the winter if they’re to be raring to go in spring. Larger plants can be reduced in size by about a third if you need them to fit onto a narrow indoor windowsill. Make cuts just above a bud or leaf junction to reduce the branch framework to a size that fits.
Reduce watering to a minimum to keep the potting mix just barely moist until growth picks up with improved light levels in spring. Gradually acclimatize them to outdoor conditions before moving them back outdoors.
3. Take Fruit Bush Cuttings
Hardwood cuttings are a super-easy, super-reliable way to bulk out your fruit garden – ideal for bushes such as currants, gooseberries and blueberries. As soon as plants have shed their leaves and gone dormant, you can get in there with the pruners and take your cuttings.
Look for growth put on over the past season, with stems of about pencil thickness. Trim your cuttings to prepare them for rooting by snipping just below a bud at the bottom, and just above a bud at the top. Make the top cut at a diagonal so excess water can easily drain off. The cuttings should be about 8-12 inches (20-30cm) long.
To root your cuttings you’ll need all-purpose potting mix with some perlite, grit or sand mixed in for improved drainage. Push the cutting in so that two-thirds of its length are below the surface, and give it a good water. Grow your cuttings on somewhere fairly sheltered outdoors. Keep them very lightly watered over the winter. They’ll root next spring, and you can then separate them into individual pots to transplant outdoors next autumn.
4. Bring in Herbs for Winter
Want some fresh herbs to tide you over this winter? Then bring some indoors, out of the cold, to carry on cropping in the warm. You can do this with a number of leafy herbs including mint, oregano, chives and parsley. Just dig up a section and pot it up into a container of fresh potting mix. Give it a drink, then relocate it to a sunny windowsill where you can pick fresh leaves as and when you need then.
5. Sow Arugula
Another hard-working option for precious windowsill space is arugula. This spicy salad really thrives from an autumn sowing, and starting it’s easy. Fill a small container with all-purpose potting mix and then scatter the seeds very thinly over the surface. Cover them with just a touch more of the same mix, and water them.
I’d say it’s worth sowing a small batch every week or so – that way you’ll have a steady supply of fresh leaves, and that’s got to be a winner during the dour depths of winter! And if your winters are quite harsh, the great thing about arugula is you can easily grow it on a bright windowsill or perhaps under some grow lights.
6. Add Compost to Beds
Now is an excellent time to get on and start spreading the goodness that’ll fuel next year’s crops: wholesome, nutrient-rich, full-of-life compost! Spread your compost on any vacant beds to a depth of at least an inch (3cm) deep. You can also spread it between overwintering crops. Just dump it on and rake it out.
There’s a real advantage to getting compost onto beds now. It will have all winter to break down in the freeze-thaw cycle of frosts, and the worms have plenty of time to draw it down into the soil. If you haven’t got enough garden compost, then well-rotted manure from a trusted source works well too.
7. Enjoy Winter Produce
Did you know that frosty weather can improve the flavor of many of our most popular cold-season crops including the likes of leeks, Brussels sprouts and, most notably, root crops like parsnips. And each bout of cold weather will only serve to improve taste.
This happens because the frost turns starches into sugars, dramatically enhancing that all-important flavor. So, in theory, your winter produce will only improve over time. Wonderful!
8. Remove Damaged Leaves
Badly damaged, dead or yellowed leaves are worth picking off winter vegetables like brassicas. As well as keeping things looking tidy and reducing the risk of diseases like molds, it removes overwintering opportunities for pests like slugs and snails, which may still be active on milder days. Best not give them an easy time of it, right!?
9. Prune Raspberries
There are two types of raspberries: summer-fruiting, and autumn-fruiting. In a mild autumn, you may find that the autumn fruiters continue right up until the first frosts. Autumn-fruiting varieties are great because they need less in the way of supports, and because they fruit on the current season’s growth, pruning is easy: once they’ve shed their leaves all you need to do is just cut all the canes right back to the ground. And that’s it! Summer-fruiting ones need old canes pruned out, and new ones tied in as they grow.
Later in the winter, cover your raspberry with with a lovely fresh mulch of compost or leaf mold, and then wait for the new shoots to push through in spring, ready for next autumn’s harvest.
10. Plant Garlic and Fava Beans
Mid-autumn can be a surprisingly busy time if you’re looking to gain a jump start on next season. There are two must-grows that I insist you make space for: garlic and fava beans.
They’re both really easy to get going and can be started off either directly in the ground, or in plug trays, toilet paper tubes or pots, so you’ve lots of options. Garlic is unbeatable for sheer intensity of flavor, and those fava beans will give the very first bean harvest of the new growing season. I love them whizzed into a dip or served up in a spring-fresh risotto. Yum!