September 2008


Updates from September 2008.

The Food Garden in September.

I hope that your garden is offering plenty of harvests at this most rewarding time of year. I am amazed every morning to step out into this little corner of paradise and survey such a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables in all shapes, sizes and colours. It has not been a fantastic summer, extraordinarily dull in fact, but nights have been warm and growth has continued steadily – with no shortage of moisture to be sure, over 6 inches in August in fact.

One problem arising from the continual damp has been an excessive germination of every possible weed seed. I count my blessings that these gardens’ soil is mostly clean because it has hardly ever dried up enough, in almost the whole of August, to do some hoeing. So I have been hand weeding for the most part, and the gardens are clean, ready for some steady autumnal rain, as opposed to steady summer rain.

All efforts that you can make to keep on top of weeds will pay huge dividends next year. If you have areas clear of crops, but weedy, I recommend mulching with any materials to hand: cardboard will not last the winter but is often available and will suffocate the autumn flush of weeds and prevent them seeding. Spreading any reasonably mature compost before mulching will offer food to worms under the mulch, and their work to incorporate it, out of sight, will do your digging and aerating in a most quiet and pleasant way.

Still on compost, it is a good time to turn any heaps which were finished in late spring or early summer, to make a more even and crumbly compost. I just turned two heaps of about a ton and there were some pretty variable contents, but I a second, more gentle fermentation now will improve the quality no end. After turning I covered the heap with a large sheet of black plastic, mainly to keep the rain out and also to encourage the red brandling worms, which arrive in compost heaps in such large numbers at this point, and help so much in transforming the ingredients.

Generally speaking, harvests in September are for current use although some people do pick and store apples by month’s end. I find in Somerset that apples keep better from being picked in early to mid October, when flavours have developed more fully, and later picking also means that fruit keeps crisper as it has less time to dry out before being eaten – more on that next month. However, if you are in a windy spot, harvesting just before the equinox is a good idea.

It has been a variable year for tree fruit. Luckily apples, our main crop, are yielding well and colouring nicely, despite the absence of sunshine. Pears, plums and apricots are almost absent because their earlier flowers were destroyed by the April frosts. An exception is a native plum, called Blasdon Red I think, which flowered a week later then other cultivars and has borne delicious fruit.

Raspberry Autumn Bliss is currently in full flow and is being ignored by blackbirds who are busy in the hedgerows, clearing up swathes of elder and blackberries. All these berries continue ripening throughout the month.

Pumpkins and Squashes

pumpkins_sept08Pumpkins and squashes should be coming ready to harvest but if you want to store them, make sure the skins are hard and their stalks are mostly dry before cutting. In the photo is ONE plant of Rouge Vif d’Etamps, growing where I had a pile of compost last winter, on what seemed like hard and almost compact soil when I planted it in early May. The red fruits at front of picture are ripe, the paler ones in the middle are about a month away and the yellow ones at back may not make it, depending on the weather to come.

The main sowings in September are of autumn salads for growing undercover through winter. To give you some ideas, I sow (in the greenhouse) lettuce Grenoble Red and Winter Density in the first week preferably, as well as leaf endive Romanesco, chards, coriander and chervil – all for planting in early October as tomatoes, cucumbers etc are removed from the polytunnels. Parsley is already growing, for planting mid month or so. At that time I also sow a whole range of fast growing oriental leaves, rockets, spinach, winter purslane and cresses to plant by mid October. All these plants will crop a little before Christmas but their main productive period is throughout March and April.

Seedlings

seedlingsStill on a sowing theme, I have been experiencing difficulty with lettuce this season, from January until now. Many of my sowings have germinated well but then failed to develop roots. At first I thought they were ‘damping off’, but in fact only their roots are rotting, while the leaves stay healthy, though small and dark green. I have tried many variations of different composts, trays, watering regimes and temperature, but always with the same frustrating results, although some varieties from certain seed companies have fared a little better. A few especially bad results have even been from newly purchased seed bought from big, well known companies. Some of my own seed from 2006 was as bad as the rest.

Then in mid August I harvested seed from a Grenoble Red lettuce plant in my tunnel which was nearly a year old, with a fair quantity of well ripened seed atop its long stems. I sowed some immediately to check its viability and lo! I have a seed tray full of healthy little seedlings, with none of the annoying failures. I also sowed a larger tray to compare growth of my own seed with some others – in the picture, Lower Farm lettuce is on the right and Seeds of Italy (purchased this year) is in the middle, both are Grenoble Red. Thank goodness I saved my own!

So what are seed companies up to with their lettuce? Is it older than they say? Or is there something in the ether this year, because in previous years I have succeeded with older lettuce seed? There is no immediate remedy as it unfortunately takes a year from sowing lettuce to harvesting the seed. Do send an email if you have any experiences to shed some light on this.

Charles Dowding.