The summer comes to an end and it is easy to think that as a gardener we can now put up our feet, dig out next year’s seed catalogues and flick through them as we dream of a crop that is not susceptible to slugs. Yet, September doesn’t have to be the end of your gardening. Many of us forget that with some careful planning we can extend the season. We wouldn’t be the first gardeners to do this. Under glass, under plastic cloches, bought and homemade we can get a crop, if humble. In the depths of winter we can trudge up our muddy plots and come back with more than greens and sprouts. All it takes is some careful planning. Back in August as my maincrop potatoes were dug up leaving empty ground in their wake, I was prepared with packets of seeds. I don’t mess around with trying to get plants started under glass, by July my under glass areas are full and all seed trays have been banished to the utility shed. I only direct sow at this time of year. My treats for the autumn season are Kale Nero di Toscana (from Mr Fothergill’s at www.mr-forthergills.co.uk), Spinach Crocodile F1 under cloches (from D.T. Brown at www.dtbrownseeds.co.uk), Turnip Armand (from D.T. Brown) and the stalwart of all winter gardens, the cabbage, the Frostie F1 variety (from D.T. Brown). I know many of you will be thinking that cabbage filled nights partnered with turnip crunching could ruin your Christmas. Dare one mention that in September? Christmas for most gardeners is a challenge, it can also be rather depressing because it means if you grow vegetables, there is good chance none of them will be part of your turkey dinner. They is a chance that your frozen produce may be included if not forgotten or in most cases frozen together in a solid mass but nothing will be fresh except for your sprouts.
Winter is the dead zone in gardening but Victorian Gardeners didn’t see this season as dead time in the garden. I recently watched The Victorian Kitchen (from www.amazon.co.uk) with the late Harry Dodson. This twelve month Victorian project ran during the eighties and it showed that some of the old techniques utilised in the late eighteen hundreds are still relevant today. Thanks to the excellent programme and accompanying book (now sadly out of print but still available second hand) introduced me to forced crops under glass and over hot beds. Now, this sounds like a strangely erotic tryst between gardeners but a hot bed has more to do with manure than mucky minds. The premise is incredibly simple, to build up a bed of manure several feet thick, flatten out the top and then put a top dressing of compost on the top. You then plant into this compost, which must be thick and not just a thin sprinkling, best to be generous and then cover with a cloche. They will be warm as the manure rots and gives off heat. You will find that many crops do well in this medium and that you could be picking strawberries in the thick of winter.
Likewise, don’t forget your cold frame which can become a hot bed and don’t forget your greenhouse. If you have some empty compost bags you can plant some potatoes in them, and you could be harvesting them in December, just in time for the Christmas dinner. Just remember to keep the frost off them, use some horticulture fleece on the worst of nights. I’m not going to lie and tell you that you won’t have some casualties but you’ll have them in any season and at least there will be no slugs unless frozen.
Even as summer fades, you can console yourself that all the tomatoes that you grew over summer are waiting in the freezer, along with the broad beans, runner beans, peas and soft fruit all as solid lumps in plastic bags. By the time you’ve chipped them apart it will be spring again.