Wow, would you believe we have now gone full circle? My very first interaction with you was in September last year. Since then we have had a full season of preparing and growth, and hopefully I have managed to get you all outdoors to enjoy the fresh air, and some delicious home grown foods. September marks the beginning of Autumn, which brings the end to my growing season. There isn’t a great deal to be done in the unpredictable, cooler and wetter weather unless you’re a really hardened pro. I don’t like the winter – it’s cold, dark, wet and miserable, all the things I hate (except snow) – so I close my allotment down over winter and start preparing for the spring to return.
September is the last month for harvesting all your summer fruits and veggies: beans, peas, corn, courgettes, tomatoes, apples, pears, plums and raspberries. Time to prepare those warming fruit crumbles and pies to see you through the winter! It’s when you harvest the last of your beetroots, and start pickling for a years’ worth of cheese and beetroot sandwiches. By the end of September the temperatures have mostly dropped and your plants all slow down their production rate, or may have even started to die off. As I do my harvesting throughout September and early October, I start to pull up the plants and pop them all in the compost heap, getting the area clear for next Spring.
Strawberry plants can stay in the ground or in pots and, contrary to popular belief, you can just leave them as they are and they will come back to life next spring. Some people like to try and wrap them up in hay, wood chippings and fancy fleeces. However, this just gives the bugs somewhere warm and cosy to bury down and lay in wait, where they eat through the roots and damage the plants. I advise against fancy wrappings, and just let nature take its course. By November the strawberry plants will look like they are dead, but honestly when spring comes round and the sun comes back, they will come back too and be green and productive in no time. The cycle of a strawberry plant can last around 3-4 years, before the plants need to be pulled out and replaced.
The only thing that needs to be done to protect your strawberry plants is to bury the new shoots. You may have noticed that your plants have grown extra shoots, like tentacles – these are re-growth plants. If you find the little regrowth point (it will have tiny, tiny roots growing at the point) just pop it into the soil and the roots will grow and create a whole new strawberry plant. This is how strawberry plants spread themselves. I also give them some feed or throw over a splattering of well-rotted manure just to keep the ground fertile over winter and feed the plants.
If you had any blackberry bushes or raspberry canes growing, they need preparing for winter too. Once the blackberries and raspberries stop growing you simply just take a strong pair of scissors and cut the stem right down to ground level. Don’t pull out the canes, just cut it down. I then toss over some well-rotted manure, or use feed if manure is not available, and then leave them alone for the winter. Raspberries and blackberries will pretty much tell you when they are ready to sleep, simply by stopping production, but it depends on the weather. If we have a lovely September then you may find you still have blackberries growing all month, but if the temperature drops quickly the plants will too.
Pumpkins should still be plumping up nicely. Give your pumpkins a cheeky little boost by feeding them in September. A good strong fertiliser that contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium will help to feed the plant – it’s the cheaters way of trying to get the biggest and best pumpkins for the Halloween harvest. You can also help accelerate their growth by removing some of the bigger leaves. A lot of effort goes into growing those leaves, so if you take them away the plant will have more energy to focus on the fruits. You can also try to ensure one big pumpkin, by removing any smaller ripe ones from the plant. Some pumpkin plants will produce four or five fruits and it will try its hardest to grow them all, but if you want two bigger pumpkins for Halloween you can remove the small ripe ones and turn them into winter soups, or roast them. Very gently lift your fattening pumpkins up off the ground and lay them on a piece of cardboard, or a pile of stones. This is because as the evenings get damper, the pumpkins directly on the ground will start to rot.
And remember…. a pumpkin is not just for Halloween! Pumpkins are wasted on Halloween… don’t just scrape out the seeds, scrape out layers of pumpkin flesh too. A scary Halloween face does not need to have ALL of the edible flesh inside for one night of candle burning and carving. Take out as much as that flesh as you can, and use it for making soups, or stick it on a roasting tray with salt, pepper and rosemary and add it to your Sunday roast. A good football sized pumpkin will have around 1-3cm of edible flesh inside it. You can also use the seeds – pumpkin seeds are a great source of protein and vitamins. Roasting and seasoning them gives you something to nibble on all winter, or you can dry them out and use for bread making, or even for growing more pumpkins next year.
In the last issue I mentioned the dreaded word – Christmas. I love Christmas, and I especially love all the food at Christmas. I suggested that if you wanted to grow your own Christmas dinner, September was the time for getting the seeds sown and getting potatoes in the ground or bag, ready for a winter harvest. Now that the temperatures begin to drop you need to make extra sure that you protect these veggies as they grow and mature. An absolute must is ensuring your cabbages and brussels are covered over. Birds and other little furry creatures will be on a hunt to gather their stores and fatten themselves up for winter. Carrots, parsnips and potatoes are vulnerable to mice and rats, but there is very little you can do that is kind and humane and organic. Keep an eye on these areas, and if you see any holes developing or signs of mice and rats, the best thing to do is cover the soil and surrounding ground in peppermint oil – mice and rats don’t like the smell of peppermint and will avoid it if they can.
Brussels will grow to around the size of golf balls if you let them, but the bigger they are the less flavour they have. You should pick your sprouts when they are the size of big red grapes. This is smaller than you buy in supermarkets, but this is when they are tastiest. You’ll see your brussels grow up a thick tall stem, and when they are a good size and ready to harvest you simply just pull the whole stem out of the ground, roots and all. Next you take the brussels off the stem and throw the rest of roots and stalks into the compost heap.
Potatoes will be ready to dig up when the flowers of the potato plants die off. As long as the ground is not too damp and wet, you can actually pull out the plants and leave the potatoes under the soil, protecting them for a number of weeks until you’re ready to eat them, but this means they are more at risk of being nibbled on by mice and hedgehogs and rats etc, so only do this for storage if you grew them in potato bags or in big plastic bins.
Winter is the perfect time to start planting fruit trees. If you have the space and want to grow more fruits, planting fruit trees in winter gives your trees roots time to spread and become established. Apple, plum, pear, rhubarb, red and blackcurrants, gooseberries, strawberries and even grape vine plants will do well. What you see above ground will resemble plants and dying twigs, but the roots are spreading themselves far and wide underground, and starting to get a real feel for their environment. If you are going to plant these fruits, then make sure you have a permanent place for them. Once they root in and get comfortable, they do not take too kindly at all about being moved, and chances are you will lose them if you move them (except for rhubarb – it’s made of strong stuff). As winter kicks in, a lot of garden centres will reduce the cost of their apple, pear and plum trees, because it is still widely believed that you should plant these fruits in the spring. The best time to buy them is around November to January, when the sales in garden centres all start.
I use the winter months to plan my next season. I rotate my crops each year, always growing things in different places. Each vegetable draws out different minerals from the soils, if you plant the same veg in the same place every year you deplete the ground of the nutrients it needs to grow, so eventually they won’t grow so well. By rotating the positions, you ensure the nutrients depleted get evenly spread, and they have time to redevelop.
Over winter I pull out every single weed that I can and then I fertilise my ground in two ways
I love growing my own, and my allotment is my Happy Place. Being out in the fresh air with a camping stove to make tea and hearing nothing but birds tweeting and bees buzzing is my source of mental health therapy. Sometimes other plot holders nearby stop to say hello, and give cracking advice, but other days I can be alone for a good 10 hours with nothing but my thoughts. Being outside gives me time to think, time to reflect, time to remember the little jobs to do that I’ve forgotten about. It’s not just mentally helpful, its also good exercise. You can make your gardening experience as physical as you like. You can have high raised beds if you have back or hip injuries, to minimise the bending and lifting and heavy work, or you can have beds in the ground and make the work harder and more physical because you need to dig over with spades and contend with weeds. It completely depends on your limitations both physically and with your time.
There’s also a caveman feeling that I get from food growing. Not only do I work hard in a daytime job to put food on the table, but I also spend time growing it and making it myself. The tomato for lunches, the pickled beetroot in cheese sandwiches, the stir-fried broccoli in dinner have never tasted so good. Brussels sprouts might be smaller than you get in the shops, but they are the tastiest, and that sweet and juicy strawberry is better than any shop bought.
I hope you have enjoyed this years growing cycle with me, and I hope that I’ve inspired more people to try something new and enjoy the rewards of growing your own. As I write this ending we are currently being confronted with a “lack of lorry drivers” and a “nationwide shortage of pigs in blankets” for Christmas. I can’t help with the bacon wrapped around a sausage, but if you have enjoyed our year together and grown alongside me, you’ll have enough veggies to not need to rely on a lorry to bring your Christmas vegetables – you’ll just need a nice local butcher for a Turkey.