October is a time of change as autumn descends… along with the leaves! There’s a bit of everything to keep us busy: a little tidying up and clearing away, ongoing harvests, and a few jobs to set you up for next season. We’ve got 10 essential tasks to complete, so we’d best get cracking!
1. Cover Winter Salads
The growth of winter salads and hardy Asian greens like tatsoi will slow down as colder weather arrives, but you can easily extend the growing season by deploying cloches or row covers such as horticultural fleece.
A small polythene tunnel is another great way to protect low-growing crops, and they’re very easy to make. Cut down some bamboo canes to make four corner posts, then slide a length of alkathene water pipe (available from hardware stores) over the top of two canes to make a hoop. Do the same over the two other canes. You can make the tunnel sturdier by tying a cane to the underside of the arch with string. Then just add a clear plastic sheet cover, and secure it at the edges with planks, small rocks, or bricks.
Tunnels like this help to keep plants and soil a little drier too, which is useful in what is often a very wet time of year. Good airflow is really important to prevent moulds or plant diseases from establishing, so whenever the weather is mild, lift up one side or open up the ends to let in some fresh air.
2. Cure Winter Squash
The leaves of your winter squash and pumpkins may be looking pretty tatty or have died back completely by now. That means it’s time to gather up the harvest haul and bring it in!
To ensure fruits store for as long as possible they will need curing. To cure winter squash or pumpkins, simply leave the fruits in a warm, well-ventilated place for one to two weeks to toughen up and seal the skin. On a greenhouse bench is ideal. Properly cured squash should keep anywhere from two to six months.
3. Ripen Green Tomatoes
Shorter days and cooler temperatures leave us in a quandary: at what point do we call it a day and gather up the last of those stubbornly green tomatoes? The optimal temperature for tomato ripening is around the high 60s to mid 70s Fahrenheit (20-25ºC). So as temperatures drop significantly below this point, ripening will slow to a crawl.
Light has no effect on ripening, so don’t bother removing leaves from around fruits to help them along Instead, gather late-season fruits and bring them indoors to finish ripening.
Fruits showing a hint of colour can simply be popped into the fruit bowl – the ethylene gas given off by riper fruits such as bananas will help your tomatoes along. If they’re still very green, pop them into a paper bag or cardboard box along with a banana. The more enclosed atmosphere will trap and concentrate more of the ethylene, giving the tomatoes a greater chance of colouring up. Check regularly and use up tomatoes as they ripen.
Clear old tomato plants once all the fruits have been picked – this is ideal growing space for planting winter greens and salads.
If your tomatoes simply won’t ripen, try a fried green tomato or green tomato chutney recipe to use them up.
4. Lift and Store Roots
Most years I can leave hardy maincrop roots in the ground for most of the winter to dig up as and when they’re needed. If a prolonged cold snap is forecast, cover the area with straw, leaves or row covers so the ground remains diggable for longer.
But if you get really cold winters, where the ground remains frozen or covered in snow for weeks on end, dig up your roots while you still can. Cut or twist off the foliage then layer the roots in boxes of damp sand or old potting mix. Make sure they aren’t touching or one bad root could quickly spoil its neighbours. Store in a cool, frost-free place. This method works well with carrots, beetroot and parsnips.
5. Finish Picking Fruit
Has your growing season been fantastically fruitful? Most fruits will be winding down about now. I know you’ve been picking all summer long, but don’t let this final bounty go to waste!
Pick what you can before winter finally brings the shutters down on this abundance. Later season varieties of apple and pear are often the best for storing. Wrap blemish-free, unbruised fruits individually in newspaper, pop them into breathable boxes, then store in a cool but frost-free place.
6. Clean Greenhouse Glass
With cooler weather and nights now longer than days, it’s time to switch tack from shading plants from the heat of the sun to trapping as much of it as we can. Wash off any shading paint applied to your greenhouse earlier in the summer, then give all the glazing a thorough clean. Brush off the worst of any dirt then wash glass thoroughly with soapy water to get it all sparkling. You could also use a power washer if you have one. Clean cold frames too.
You can wash glass anytime in the autumn, as soon as summer crops like tomatoes have been cleared.
7. Order Garlic
Do you ever get the sense we’re on the cusp of something? I’m convinced garlic is going to be the next big thing, and it certainly deserves to be given the incredible range of varieties and what a superb, bullet-proof crop it is.
I’ll be showing you how to plant garlic in in an upcoming video, but in the meantime, order your garlic before varieties start to sell out. The best choice can be found online, with some companies specializing solely in these unapologetically pungent bulbs!
When choosing, bear in mind there are two types. Hardneck garlic produces fewer, larger cloves per bulb, and is very cold hardy. It also produce tasty ‘scapes’, which are the edible flower stalks loved by gourmet cooks. Softnecks, on the other hand, produce more cloves, though these tend to be a touch smaller than those of hardnecks. Softnecks also store for longer, extending the usefulness of this must-grow crop.
8. Rake up Leaves
The autumn leaf fall is just around the corner, and wise gardeners will be planning to make the most of this annual windfall. I leave most of them where they fall – they protect the soil and then rot down into it, helping to improve it. But it’s worth raking them up from paths, patios or any surface that might get slippery.
All you need is a simple spring-tine rake, and a wheelbarrow to move the gathered leaves to the compost heap. If you have lots of leaves – or access to them – it is worth making some leafmould. Leafmould is a superb natural material to use to improve your soil’s overall health and structure. Simply pile your leaves into a corral of wire mesh to prevent them from blowing away, and give it all a good water if its dry. The more leaves you can pile in the better, as bigger piles rot down faster. Leaves take around two years to break down full into leafmould, but you’ll have something useful to spread on beds and borders within one year.
If you don’t have much space, another option is to stuff leaves into black sacks, punctured all over to help with airflow. Tie filled bags shut, then just bung them in an out-of-the-way corner til the leafmould’s ready.
9. Cut Back Perennial Crops
Cut Jerusalem artichokes to a few inches above ground level – the stumps that are left will help you identify where the tubers beneath lie.
Cut back dead or yellowed foliage from perennial crops such as rhubarb as the cold makes an impact. Rhubarb leaves often turn slushy after a few hard frosts and can just be scooped up and dumped onto the compost heap.
10. Make More Compost
With so much plant material being removed from the garden in autumn, it’s worth taking stock of your composting setup.
To make a simple compost bin just stand three old pallets on their edges to make a U-shape, then lash them together where they meet using thick-gauge wire. You can anchor it all in place by hammering in sections of rebar to stop the pallets moving.
An extra compost heap or bay is really useful, because it means one can be left to mature while the other is still being filled. If you have the space, locate your compost heaps so they’re side by side. That way, when you harvest the compost, you can easily move uncomposted material from one bin to the next.