Clearing out

It’s that time of year again, many crops have yielded their bounty and are beginning to fade. Vegetable beds need to be cleared out for winter, seeds need to be gathered, annuals need to be composted and perennials need to be tidied up. It is still too early to cut back larger deciduous trees and shrubs, but there is a lot to be done to prepare the garden for the dark days and frosty nights.


This weekend I have cleared out my runner beans. They have cropped amazingly this year, we have had beans with every meal for months. Now only a few coarse pods are left and it’s time to take them out. The ‘Early Onward’ peas are also at an end. I did sow a late crop just to see how they would perform, they have blossom now but it may be too late from them to produce pods. The last of the potatoes are dug, I have left them in the ground as they hold better than if I dig them all up together, but I need to get them out now before the slugs attack them. I only sow early potatoes to avoid blight, so these potatoes will need to be eaten as they are not suitable for storage. It is wonderful to have the great taste of new potatoes up to October.


The courgettes are still producing, but fruits are smaller now. We had a night of frost during the week, I covered them with fleece and they survived, but it’s now only a matter of time until they succumb. The tomatoes are still struggling on, there has been enough sun between the showers to ripen them, but they do not have ‘sun-kissed’ taste that they achieve some summers.


I have mulched the rhubarb with home-made compost to give it protection and enrichment over the cold spell. I now grow rhubarb in two large bins as it was too vigorous in the ground and it swamped all around it. It seems happy as it has great depth of soil and it provides plenty of rhubarb for eating. Next job is to tidy up the strawberries. The older plants need to have their withered leaves removed and new runners need to be separated from parent plants. This year I have made a new strawberry bed, so I am discarding many of the older plants as they deteriorate after their third season.


Into the space left by the potatoes I have planted out chard and beetroot plants that have been grown from seed. They should survive until the new year. I have planted garlic and some red onions too. The rest of the vegetable beds will lie dormant for the winter. Instead of planting green manure I usually give the empty spaces a generous layer of home-made compost and cover them with cardboard (begged from the supermarket). A thin layer of clay over the cardboard will keep it in place and it will rot down over the winter.





Bounty for birds

Life can be hard for our birds, but gardeners can really make a difference to their chances of survival. Even if we do not provide food specifically marketed for them our gardens can provide all they need for most of the year. Exceptions are hard frosty winters where food is scarce and water is frozen.

As well as being so attractive to watch, our birds perform a very useful service, helping us with harmful insects and slugs. It must be said that our birds are not too keen on slugs and much prefer the goodies in the hanging feeders, and I can’t say I blame them.

This late summer early autumn time provides a bounty for them. Berries are prolific on Pyracantha and Hawthorn. Roses have plentiful hips and Rosa Rogusa produces a large red berry beloved of blackbirds. Holly berries never make it as far as Christmas. Our Sambucus (Elderflower ‘Black Lace’) has handsome clusters of black berries and our Mountain Ash (Sorbus Commixta) has sprays of deep orange berries which attract thrushes and blackbirds. The early morning is the best time to see the birds in full foraging mode, the whole tree shakes as they pry loose the ripe berries. They do not seem to bother with the fallen berries which they have shaken loose, but maybe when times get hard they will take these up as well. The number of self seeded Hawthorns and Mountain Ashes suggests that at least some berries escape them and make their own way in the world.


Having feasted on raspberries, strawberries and currants in summer they now turn their attention to the ripening apples, pears and damsons. It is a bit annoying when they only take a few pecks from an apple and move on to try another. I sometimes chop up windfall apples for them, or when the winter gets severe I remove the damaged parts of stored apples and chop up the rest for them. When stored fruits are depleted and if the weather is harsh we give them chopped up grapes.


Crab Apple Jelly

The ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is upon us. Autumn has come quite early this year as August and early September have been so wet. I am happy to see the crab apples in fruit again, after last year’s die back and loss of fruit I thought the tree was terminally ill. However, nature has cured the problem and this year we had great blossom and great fruit.

The winds of early September brought down many of the fruits so I decided to pick the ripest of the apples to make jelly. To my mind they were not quite ripe, but they get destroyed when they fall and land on the gravel, so I’ve taken off a first crop, leaving the more unripe ones for later.

The variety is ‘Gorgeous’ and it produces lovely red or red and yellow fruits, just like miniature eating apples. They are very prolific and even though the birds feast on them, there is plenty for everyone. As the taste is quite tart the jelly needs a good bit of sugar, but I try to keep it to a minimum, I use the proportion of three parts sugar to four parts fruit. The resulting jelly is still quite sharp, but very tasty. It has a lovely rich red colour, clear and fresh.

I hope to get a second harvest in the next two to three weeks. The pots make a nice present for friends and family later in the year.

An apple a day

The great delights of September are the fruiting trees: apples, pears, damsons and figs. In our cold midlands climate apples and damsons do best, so every year gives a good crop. Other fruits are trickier, but any crop is so welcome.

In our small garden we have managed to squeeze in three apple trees, two crab apples, and one each of pear, plum, damson and fig. From the beginning we knew that we would have to keep the trees small, we bought specimens grown on small rootstock and we prune every year, in summer for new growth and in winter for shape. One apple and one crab apple are trained as cordons to a wooden frame, and they crop better than the free-standing trees.

Our apples are Red Windsor, Gala and Cox’s, and the crab apples are Coralburst and Gorgeous. Originally the apples were planted on the other side of the garden, but the straying football from next door caused a lot of damage to branches and fruit so we decided to move them. They are much happier on the west side of the garden, they get more sun during the day and the delicate blossom in spring is spared the damaging early morning sun.

The apples store well when they are carefully picked and placed in single layers in baskets or boxes. The fallen or damaged ones are used first and we only store the perfect ones.

Last year we had a major problem with the crab apple Gorgeous, both leaves and fruits got scabby and fell off so we had no crab apple jelly. Luckily this year they have recovered and the tree is laden with fruit. The intense red berries give a beautiful deep red colour to the jelly. The blossom on Coralburst is delicate and beautiful, but the fruits are tiny and cannot be used.

The fig tree, Brown Turkey, grows quite well outdoors in our cold and wet weather but the fruits are few. It is grown against the palisade on the west side of the garden with its roots confined by concrete bricks. We get lots of immature fruits, but only a few have time to grow and ripen before the weather gets too cold. Our friend, who lives in Cork, has a mature fig taller than his two storey barn and he gets hundreds of figs each year.

Our pear tree is sensitive to the weather conditions and we can never be sure of a crop. Last year it excelled itself and we got 50 or 60 pears. This year we’ve had good blossom and good setting of fruit, but the strong winds during the summer knocked all the fruits down except for one lone pear.

The plum and damson are babies, both had blossom this year, but only the damson has fruits, which are not yet ripe. I hope we will have a long and happy future with both.


Strawberry fields

I imagine that an independent survey would place the strawberry among the top five summer fruits. Once available only from late May to July, with perpetual varieties kicking in from mid summer to autumn, strawberries now appear on shop shelves all year round. But now they often do not have the fine flavour that made them so loved in the first place. When you grow your own you can rediscover that taste again.

We started out with three plants purchased by mail order from Holland. How glorious that first crop was! We’ve never had to buy another plant as they throw out runners every year and we could have hundreds if we wished, and we are also able to share plants with friends. We’ve tried not to let them take over the two vegetable beds: they would without any bother. They need to be replaced every three to four years, so the runners come in to play as the new plants.

The runners arch out gracefully and plant themselves in any convenient bit of earth in the ground or in a pot. If I intend to keep them I get them to root in small pots next to the parent plants, pinned down with a metal staple. This makes it easier to replant them when they have rooted. I cut off all unwanted runners as they weaken the plant. As complete takeover of the vegetable bed was becoming a real possibility I decided to plant the new runners in pots, this only worked for one season as the dreaded vine weevil colonized the pots after the first year. This year we have got a new raised bed, four feet by four, not very large but as much as we can accommodate. We found a space for it near the currant bushes, in full sun. As the runners root this year they will be housed in the new raised bed.


To keep the fruits protected and clean, I use paper from the shredder instead of straw, which can be difficult to obtain, this is a satisfying way to dispose of those Visa and other pesky bills. At the end of the fruiting season it is recommended to cut off all fading and withered leaves from the older plants. This seems to work well, it tidies up the patch and gives strong healthy plants the next season.

I do not think strawberries freeze well, they defrost in soggy lumps and make for watery jam. This means that the glut needs to be eaten or processed in a short time. After sharing with the blackbirds and any friends who call, we eat the best berries and make jam with the rest. This year I have tried freezing a container full of liquidized berries, I’ll see how this turns out as it’s faster than making jam when the pressure is on. All my friends may expect a pot of home-made jam for the next month or so.


Raspberries in captivity

How can a small garden provide a dedicated space for that most wonderful of summer fruits: the raspberry? For me the raspberry is the quintessential taste of summer. Until recent years their season in shops and markets was very short, and they are so perishable that they need to be eaten as soon as possible after being picked.

Shortly after we moved to our garden we purchased two summer raspberry plants (Rubus idaeas) to be placed tidily near the perimeter fence on the west side of the garden We have never netted them in case we would injure or kill visiting birds if they got caught in the net in the early morning. The first year we got a lovely crop of tasty succulent raspberries, which we shared with the neighbourhood blackbirds. The second year we had many more raspberry bushes and they filled the allocated space, we were able to make jam as well as eat them fresh and share with the birds. At this point we had put in our two vegetable beds in the sunny south west section, so we restrained the raspberries with a plastic barrier just under the soil. Two years of advance and retreat followed as the plants tried to escape their space, they even began to emerge in the new vegetable bed across the gravel path.

We carefully cut out the old canes each year and tried to limit the new canes as suggested by the experts. Scientific research showed us that the plants spread by sending out runners just under the soil which then sought to colonise new territories. Much as we loved the fruit this would result in the whole garden being swamped.

Finally I decided to dig them out, otherwise we would become a monoculture garden. Not able to bear the idea of being without them altogether, we selected the best behaved new canes (relatively speaking) and placed them in six large tubs (50 cm in diameter and 45 cm high) in the windy alley to the east of the house near the compost bins: exile indeed! This is a shadier area and is a fairly hostile environment for any tender plant. The tubs provide good drainage, which they like, and we mulch them every spring with home-made compost and water them well with stored rain water during any dry spells in summer.

Home-grown raspberries mature and ripen and cause a glut in a few short weeks. We eat them fresh in June and early July, but we freeze them for making jam later. Small quantities can be frozen each day as they ripen and they are perfect for making jam later in the summer. The process of freezing seems to make them more tart in flavour, so they are not suitable for eating defrosted, but they are better for jam and preserves.

The raspberries are thriving in their tubs, and while they bear somewhat less fruit, there is still plenty for the needs of humans and blackbirds.