Gardening: Winter is coming... so be prepared

As November looms, Olive Ryan has some tips for keeping your garden ticking over, and planning for 2021
Gardening: Winter is coming... so be prepared

Tender plants like begonias and succulents need to be brought indoors now

THERE is plenty to keep us busy in the garden at present, preparing for winter, and work undertaken now will ensure a smoother transition in spring as plants begin growth once more.

It’s always best to have cover on the soil for the winter months, and this can take many different forms. Green manures sown in autumn ensure that valuable nutrients are retained in the soil and some green manures such as clover and broad beans fix nitrogen in nodules in the soil and further enhance nutrient supply.

Cardboard can be used once harvesting is complete and this prevents weeds taking over — the cardboard can be secured with stones, or better again use garden compost, seaweed or manure, which will eventually be incorporated into the soil as the cardboard melts and breaks down.

Bark mulch, shale or gravel can be applied as a mulch on bare soil to help with weed suppression.

Getting a handle on weeds now before the winter will make for a more enjoyable spring, and special attention given to the removal of perennial weeds like dandelion, nettle and dock roots will be a job well done.

These deep-rooted weeds are best not added to the compost heap as they can persist; they can be put on a separate long term compost heap, or submerge them in a bucket of water for at least a month before adding the resulting slop to the compost heap!

Best not to worry about having the garden too tidy over the winter months as leaving some dead and decaying material in situ can create valuable shelter and cover for wildlife over the winter months.

Leaving the cutting down of herbaceous stems until spring can maintain natural bug hotels that insect life can inhabit for the winter months.

February orchid, a great winter salad crop that produces delightful violet flowers in early spring
February orchid, a great winter salad crop that produces delightful violet flowers in early spring

Raking leaves into beds and borders to break down gradually-releasing nutrients back into the soil, and also helping to suppress weed growth on bare soil, is useful at this time of the year.

It is best to create leaf mould, allowing the leaves to break down over a year or two, but the leaf litter in beds and borders will create a valuable reserve for foraging birds over the winter months and they can be observed rifling through its contents for food on cold, frosty mornings.

Planting of bulbs is well underway and these will reward you in the spring. Daffodils, crocus, snowdrops, tulips and alliums all provide a great display at a time when we need some inspiration in the garden and these can be planted now.

Generally waiting until into November to plant tulip bulbs is considered best practice, as the soil temperatures have dropped and there is less chance of loss of bulbs through infection or even rotting.

Tulips need a period of cold to activate flowering and the less time they are sitting in the soil not growing, the better. Generally, when planting bulbs it is best to plant them two or three times the depth of the bulb. So if the bulb is 5cm, dig a hole 10-15cm depth for planting. If bulbs are not planted deep enough they may not flower.

Topdressing with leaf mould, seaweed or bark mulch will suppress any weed growth and incorporate some organic conditioning to the soil.

Any tender plants need to be brought indoors now before temperatures start to go below zero at night time. Salvias, cannas, bananas, tree ferns, dahalias, pelargoniums and succulents need to be brought into a covered frost-free space and watered minimally over the next few months.

Having an indoor growing space for the winter is a great benefit in the garden — glasshouses, polytunnels and even space in garden sheds are good for tender plants.

The tomatoes are fading fast as the temperatures fall and it is time to clear them from glasshouses and polytunnels and make some space for winter crops, or condition the soil for the winter in preparation for next year’s crop.

Seed can be saved from favourite varieties of tomatoes by taking one of the fruits and halving it with a knife. Scoop out the seeds which are in a jelly and put them into a jar of water for a few days where a mould will form.

The jelly that coats the seeds helps to prevent germination so put the seeds and jelly through a sieve after a few days, removing the mould and jelly with water, and then place the seeds on some kitchen paper to dry out.

Scooping out gel from tomatoes
Scooping out gel from tomatoes

Once dried, store in an envelope and label ready for sowing next spring. It is very rewarding and useful to be able to save your own seed, why not try it out this year?

Indoor growing spaces can also be useful to grow some winter greens like mizuna, texel greens, claytonia and february orchid. These can be planted from seed and harvested as cut and come again leaves throughout the winter months.

Onion sets can also be planted now, varieties like Senshyu, Radar, Bianco and Troy will not put on much growth over the winter but they can be used early in the springtime as they will have a bit of a head start.

Now is a good time for planting hard neck garlic bulbs outdoors, they need a period of at least six weeks of cold weather, which activates the clove to split into several cloves, and they will be ready for harvest at the end of the summer when the foliage begins to die back.

There are still some things that can be planted at this time of the year to keep a small harvest going over the winter months and to get an edge on springtime. Happy Autumn Gardening!

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