Updates from October 2008.
Gardening for food in October.
The lovely weather of September’s second half, after full moon on 15th, has been a real bonus for ripening fruit and squashes, hoeing weeds, harvesting vegetables and so many other jobs which go better in fine weather. I even gathered a kilo of cob nuts from a bush that squirrels had left alone! Badgers are coming through the garden occasionally and digging small holes to look for worms and slugs I think, and fortunately they leave my carrots and apples untouched.
Harvesting apples is important in early October, when they should be fully ripe but without too many having fallen. The photo shows my tree of Jupiters at the end of September: they taste as good as they look! There is some netting to deter birds. I aim to harvest apples by the moon this year, on 6th-8th (Sagittarius) and 15th-16th (Aries), to see if storage can be helped. Apples have been going soft and dry too easily in the warm autumns of recent years. A neighbour stores them in an old fridge, which keeps his crop beautifully crisp but with a certain carbon footprint! I use old cardboard boxes lined with perforated polythene, kept in an outbuilding and watched over for rats.
October is the main month for planting winter salads indoors and my polytunnels fill up with oriental leaves, rocket, spinach, lettuce, claytonia, adding to some chards, endives, chervil, coriander, sorrel and claytonia which are already planted.
Outdoors there is garlic to plant, as early in the month as possible. I hope to find time on 9th which is a root day and in full waxing phase of the moon. I shall plant a few onion sets too, although I am wondering if it might be better, mildew wise, not to have any overwintering onions. My crops have been halved in the last two years by mildew arriving in late May and killing onion leaves prematurely. Might its incidence be reduced by having no onion leaves in the garden between summer and spring?
Further to my query last month about the poor quality of lettuce seed, I received a message from a market gardener in Oxfordshire whose experiences have been equally frustrating, He also has noticed dramatically better growth with some seed he managed to save. But my outdoor lettuce seed has, due to a lack of warm sunshine, been of minimal quantity this year, and it is best grown indoors I feel. Seed saving is another skill to learn, and job to find time for, but with results to compensate.
Squashes are still ripening in October, their skins hardening and flesh sweetening, as with many root vegetables. They resist slight frost but are best harvested before, say, night temperatures below -2C. Parsnips will be all the better for cold temperatures and mine are looking excellent this year. Some I dug for the Montague Inn’s ‘one mile menu’ have beautiful, long roots.
It is ironic and unfortunate that these fine roots, growing so well in heavy, undug soil, need levering out with a strong fork, one of the few times I insert a tool into the soil. It really is better not to! Recently I showed a local, professional gardener around and he was amazed at how full the gardens are, with no gaps or failures. I emphasised how much simpler it is to succeed in difficult soils when organic matter is left on top, for worms to pull it in and do the ‘digging’.
October is an ideal month to start this process in your garden, as worms are hungry now, and there should be moisture and soil warmth to facilitate their efforts. So in a healthy soil, composts and mulches spread now should be taken in quite rapidly. I was amazed last winter to see how quickly an inch or more of mature, home made compost ‘disappeared’.
Worms process surface-applied compost rapidly and completely, improving soil in a more permanent way than when compost or manure is dug in. Digging destroys worms’ work, risks killing them, and confuses them by the sudden, unexpected appearance of organic matter at a deep level, where it risks putrefying for lack of air. In a no dig system, all the lattice of worm channels is maintained, giving the soil an enduring structural improvement which helps rain to drain through, air to remain, and roots to forage more easily. Important fungi are also maintained and encouraged.
So how to convert a weedy plot without digging? The photos of converting a dandelion and buttercup infested pasture to a vegetable plot suggest the simplicity of doing it by mulching, as long as you can source the necessary materials. In the foreground is cardboard covered with about 50mm of mushroom compost. The cardboard is preferably thick, furniture boxes for example, and could also have been on top, weighted down with stones. The remaining grass was covered with the same depth of compost and about 100mm of straw on top of that, all in January. By April, a lot of dandelions were growing through and I laid some more cardboard or newspaper, and planted some potatoes in the top part. Other vegetables have been planted since then and there are now some excellent crops, with almost no weeds and I have had little weeding to do.