I’ve just come inside after a fantastically sunny day in the garden. I’d been dreading clearing the summer things away, but by now (mid November) everything is beginning to look very tired. The trellises seemed to slouch under the weight of dying foliage and the decking was obscured by dead leaves and debris.
In fact the autumn tidy up was far more pleasurable that I could imagine. This time of year can still be very pleasant in the metropolis if the sun shines. As I cleared I remembered all the summer harvests that had delighted us; the crop of lettuces, the garlic, the runner beans that are still producing beans for our winter stews.
Every so often I came across little delights like Calendula still flowering or Nasturtiums having re-seeded. Anything delicate that could not be covered with a cloche was dug up, potted up and popped into the growhouse, where lettuces and parsley seem to be the main menu items at the moment. I also relented and took a few of the nasturtiums into the growhouse, hoping that they might still delight me with late flowers up until Christmas.
In August I started filling a new tall plastic growhouse with winter greens and this is cropping beautifully now. It is too late to sow anything until after the equinox now, the winter days are too short. So all the lettuces, lambs lettuce, cress and chicory I sowed a few months ago will have to keep us in greens until spring. The sun set today on the terrace at four o’clock. It is too late for sowing seeds, they will have trouble germinating in the short winter days. But I might sew some microveg like cress, or start sprouting seeds like alfalfa.
I finally emptied the tomato beds. Those in the growhouse had gone about two weeks ago, but tomatoes were still growing and colouring up outside in sheltered spots, so I held off as long as I could. My harvest today will provide enough for a jar or two of green tomato chutney. The leaves and stems looked quite blackened with blight, but the tomatoes have hardly been affected.
I decided not to compost the tomato stems. People say that the blight will burn off in a good hot compost, but my bin is just too full at the moment to take anything else. Kitchen waste was also backing up, but at this time of year beds that haven’t got any crops in them can be dug over with a fork and fresh kitchen waste buried under the soil. With a little help from the worms, this will rot down in a month or so, providing a good base for spring crops.
I also cleared away around the cabbages and sprouting broccoli, which is doing very well so far. Hopefully we’ll get a few frosts soon. Frost won’t harm the greens, but it will kill off a lot of the slugs that so enjoy my produce! They hate a tidy garden, so my autumn clear up will reduce places where they can overwinter.
Next weekend I am going to perform another autumn custom and collect leaves from the park. I put them in plastic bags. Then I’m going to pierce the plastic in a few locations in order to let in a bit of water as the leaf mould develops. If they are very dry to start off with, I’ll spray water inside the bag before I tie it up. A chicken wire basket is the traditional location for the leaf pile, but my roof top veg plot is too small for such luxuries. Even if I had such a thing the leaves would tend to blow away in the equinoxal gales, so bags stuffed next to the compost heap have to suffice for me. Put them somewhere where they will get rained on. The leaves will then rot down over the winter and produce friable, seed-free compost for seedlings next season. The leaves rot down to next to nothing, so because I’m planning a big seed sewing binge next year, I will need several large bin bags full. The best leaves to rot down are the smaller ones like Oak, Beech or Lime. Chestnuts and Maples take a bit longer to rot down. (Pine needles take a lifetime, but do produce an ericaceous compost.)
Autumn leaves can also be used as mulch, or mixed in with a heavy compost to lighten it. But all of these are improved by allowing them to rot down off the ground first.
Don’t take leaves from the forest floor, where they perform an important ecological function, but take them from grassy areas in the local park, where they are unlikely to be tainted by chemicals or hydrocarbons as pavement and roadside leaves often are. The park keeper spends thousands of pounds clearing leaves from our local park, so helping out will keep the council tax low, (I hope!)