GARDENING: Be on alert for signs of early frost

With Joyce Russell

THE first frost of the year might arrive in the latter half of October. It may wait until November, but there is no doubt that colder weather will be with us before too long. A hard frost will kill any unprotected tender plants and you will probably wave goodbye to outdoor courgettes, fennel, tomatoes, peppers and so on. 

Plants growing in a greenhouse or polytunnel will be protected for a few weeks longer and you may get them for longer again if you watch the forecast and are prepared to add a few extra coverings until a cold spell is gone. But whatever way you look at it, the season of summer crops is coming towards an end. There is a steady transition to the glory of sprouts, kales, cabbages, cauliflower, spinach, leeks, chard and broccoli as the greens of a winter garden take pride of place. Add these to all your stored garden produce and you are looking at some good eating through the months ahead.

Plenty to do

The big autumn clear up should be well under way. 

• Beds can be cleared when crops finish producing. Remove weeds, taking care to dig out any with deep roots. Dig in some manure or compost, if you have it, and cover the lot with a waterproof covering. The bed will be ready to plant when you remove the cover in spring.

• Remove netting from fruit beds and remove twigs etc before packing it away. Repair any holes now if you have the time – it’s so nice not to have to think about this when bushes need netting again next year. Use a strong rot-proof thread so the job is well done.

• Check that all supports are in place for tall brassica plants. Late autumn and winter winds can do a lot of damage and you don’t want Brussels sprouts uprooted and flat on the ground. 

• Check any tree ties and supports in the ornamental garden too. It isn’t just edible plants that can be blown down.

• Tidy paths and wash pots before putting them away in the shed. 

There’s lots to do to make all neat and tidy so you can relax through the months ahead.

Turn the heap!

A compost heap can be the heart of a garden and most can suffer from long spells of neglect. This is the time to take control and give a boost back, so the heart of the garden can beat strongly again. If you have a two bin system, turn the contents of a full bin into an empty one. 

The least rotted stuff at the top of the old heap will end up at the base of the new one and the more rotted stuff will end up at the top. You will incorporate lots of air in the process and if you can add layers of nitrogen rich material into the heap as you turn it, you will start everything working again. Make sure the contents are damp and cover the top to keep excess rainfall out. You should have plenty of good compost that’s ready to use when next spring comes around.

Sow peas and beans

Choose hardy varieties that will stand through a cold winter. Aquadulce Claudia is my favourite autumn planting broad bean and Oregon Sugar Pod is a prolific and delicious mange-tout pea. Meteor is a good podding pea variety, although if you grow under cover in a mild winter, you can have success with many summer options too. I have had plentiful harvests from Hurst Greenshaft sown in a polytunnel in October.

You can sow in pots or trays to plant out later or directly underneath a cloche if growing outdoors. Sowings are more successful with some covering through cold weather. Do watch out for rodents digging up the seeds to eat. I sow extra in a tub to replace any gaps in the rows.

Sow broad beans in 8cm pots in the greenhouse. These can be planted out undercover in December to give some extra early beans next year. Keep pots watered and always plant out before roots wind around the inside of the pot. 

A bit of colour

There are plenty of small winter-flowering plants available from garden centres, supermarkets and market stalls.  As I have said before, miniature cyclamen are some of my favourites and they do extremely well in a sheltered window box. 

Check any plants carefully before you buy. Is the compost damp and are leaves healthy? Wilting or discoloured leaves can be a sign of stress. Are there plenty of new flower shoots or buds? Is the plant rootbound or is it at a perfect point to grow on? And be prepared to plant into a larger container or the garden border within a day or two of getting home.

Check for new flower buds.
Sow broad beans for early pickings next year.

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