November 2008

Updates from November 2008.

Food gardens in November.

Apologies for some confusion in October’s piece, about my beautiful Blenheim Orange apples. I tell everybody about their gorgeous colour, high yield and incomparable flavour. Then at the RHS Great Autumn Show, I proudly showed some to Jim Arbury, who runs RHS Wisley’s apple orchards. He and his team were staging a beautiful and informative display of a hundred different apple and pear cultivars.

Holding one of my apples in his hand, he said “I think this is not a Blenheim – come and look over here”. As he placed it next to a tray of Jupiter apples, we could see how they matched exactly. Then we looked at some true Blenheims and I realised how different they were!

Somewhere, sometime, there must have been a nursery mix up, such as a whole row of trees being included in the wrong batch. How often does this happen? How sure can one be that labels are correct?

My doubts were increased after asking Jim to look at some Orleans Reinette, off a tree purchased ten years ago from a different outlet. “This is not what you think, it’s a Ribston Pippin!” he said, as we marched over to look at another plateful of apples, the Ribstons, to observe their similarities with my supposed Orleans. By now I was beginning to doubt a lot of cultivar names and was reminded of two friends’ experiences with peach trees from Scotts of Merriot. They both turned out to be almonds, after three years of waiting and much aggravated chewing. Peach and almond tree leaves look similar, and an almond in its furry case looks rather like a peach, until you try to eat it!

The surprising thing is that these mislabelled trees came from such a reputable nursery, although they were probably passing on a mistake made earlier in the supply chain. Unfortunately, national seed companies are no more reliable, as I discovered three summers ago after sowing two packets of Musselburgh leeks, one from DT Brown and the other from Suttons. The plants came up as utterly different as you could imagine: one lot were compact and dark green, the other were long stemmed and much paler. The latter did not survive some hard frosts and were definitely not Musselburgh!

Whatever the variety, 2008 has been an excellent year for all leeks, growing steadily in the plentiful moisture and even temperatures. Early ones such as King Richard and Swiss Giant are best harvested before Christmas, and preferably before any moderate frost, which may damage their long stems. Autumn Mammoth strains are more hardy but can suffer in severe winters, while spring leeks with dark flags, such as Musselburgh, Bandit and Alaska will survive all frost and ice, to put on new growth in March and April, for heavier harvests into early May.

So before sowing leeks next April, read the small print to check that you have a variety that matches your needs, in terms of when you want to pull them. Spring ones tend to grow more slowly in the autumn, so the earlier varieties (Swiss Giant rather than Musselburgh) are better for picking between late summer and Christmas.

The last outdoor plantings are now happening. I hope your garlic is planted, otherwise pop in some cloves as soon as possible, then cover them, after planting, with an inch or so of compost. Even if it is lumpy and partly rotted, the winter weather will break it up. Garlic likes a soil rich in organic matter, partly because it holds moisture and helps to reduce leaf rust in spring, which is caused by those early droughts.

Similarly, I cover my autumn sowing of broad bean Aquadulce Claudia in the same way, after planting them on bonfire night or thereabouts. I find here that early November is the last sowing date for broad beans – any later and they risk rotting in cold, wet soil. Whereas earlier sowings risk being too tall to survive winter gales and frosts. One hopes for a sturdy, compact plant until growth recommences in late winter.

As you clear ground this autumn, see if you can make a rough plan of where to plant different vegetables next year, according to what has grown before and the state of soil in different parts of your plot. For example, areas with lots of weed seeds are best kept for wider spaced plants like potatoes and cabbages, which can be hoed more easily. Note how it is frequent hoeing that cleans soil, not the potatoes themselves!

Any clean soil is best for slow growing carrots and parsnips, which might otherwise be smothered by weed growth. And you CAN spread compost beforehand. It is a myth that soil for growing carrots and parsnips can’t be manured or composted. Great benefit comes from spreading it on top for worms to take in. Soil structure is improved and all roots grow better for it, with no forking in root vegetables. Look at the photos of my composted parsnips and carrots. They grew superbly (in a dense clay soil) and the carrots were a second crop, intersown between garlic as it was ripening. Not digging reduces the amount of weeds and makes it much easier to inter-crop in this way.

Charles Dowding.