Now Autumn is here, I’ve begun the process of clearing down my veg beds. Even on the smallest of plots, there can be a wide range of plants that need disposing down, with some even provide a little challenge along the way.
Just this year, I’ve worked up a sweat yanking out a well rooted courgette and channelled my inner puzzle solver trying to retrieve tangled squash runners without pulling everything else up that they’ve grabbed on to!
I like to reflect and make mental notes as I clear each plant. It’s the perfect time to observe how they grew, the levels of success and what I might do better next year. If you can note this down all the better, as unlike me, you then might remember all the useful information for next year!
One thing you’ll soon realise is that clearing down the beds creates a big volume of stuff to dispose of. I’m always amazed by the size of the pile that I’m left with at the end of this particular job.
The best place for your dead plants is the compost bin. Remnants of old plants, dead leaves and unwanted prunings provide an excellent ‘brown’ to a compost mix, contributing a useful source of carbon to the decomposing process.
Here are 6 tips for composting down your spent crops.
Keep the Mix Consistent
Don’t over do the combination though – a good compost mix should be equal parts green and brown, so try to match what you put in with the same amount of grass cuttings and kitchen scraps. If you sense that all the plants are going to make for a sloppy mix, add in scrunched up pieces of paper or strips of cardboard. Some leaf mould or compost will also help create a good consistency.
Dig Out the Bottom of the Bin
If you’re running out of room in your compost bin, dig out some compost from the bottom and store it in old, plastic compost bags. This will finish of the decomposition a treat, and give you more space to compost down your plants.
Keep the Infected Plants Out of the Bin
Avoid adding any infected fruit and plants to the bin. This will spread infection amongst the compost and is particularly important for potatoes as they are effectively still alive so continue to harbour blight long after harvesting. This will increase the chance of disease in your compost should a tuber decide to regrow in the cosy compost environment the following Spring.
The best place for disposing of these crops is Council green waste bins either at home or the local tip, as Council composting facilities will reach the temperature required to kill off most diseases.
Subject to plot rules, you can also treat yourself to a little bonfire to dispose of anything bad (and any surplus good bits if you like). You can’t beat a bonfire on a chilly Autumn afternoon.
Peas and Beans
If you’ve grown any peas or beans, chop the plants off a few inches above the ground for composting, and let the roots and base rot down into the soil. Peas and beans contain lots of good nutrients for the soil.
Chop Up the Thick Stuff
Before adding to the bin, chop up thicker plant stems with a spade so they don’t take too long to rot down. Use a spade to reduce the stems to 6 inch lengths.
And keep any weeds away from your precious compost mix! I know plotholders who compost down everything, including their weeds, but I prefer to keep my compost bins free of weeds as I reckon they’re perfect environments for the critters to revitalise and end up back in your soil.
Our Aga is being serviced next week. Apparently, after an Aga is serviced, they are then switched on again for the Winter.
This caused some consternation in our household. ‘It’s not even Autumn yet!’ I cried. ‘Yes it is,’ countered Ailsa, citing the astronomical calendar. She’s very good at evidence based argument.
As it turns out, the start of Autumn depends on whether you’re following the astronomical or meteorological calendar.
If, like my wife, you’re a fan of the astronomical calendar, then your seasons are defined by the Earth’s axis and orbit around the sun, and Autumn began on 1st September. The meteorological calendar is used by meteorologists to keep the seasons a consistent length, and so for those lucky folk, it’s still summer until the 22nd September.
One thing Ailsa and I can agree on, is that if Autumn hasn’t arrived yet, it will do very, very shortly, and will certainly have a big impact on the allotment.
Colder Weather The weather will gradually become colder, as temperatures drop in line with the average for Autumn, which is a shivery 9.4 degrees celsius. This means curtains for the more delicate Summer plants, such as tomatoes, squashes, courgettes and French beans. These plants will die off and need clearing away and composting, but void composting any infected plants, such as tomatoes with blight.
Keep The Tomatoes Ripening! The drop in temperature also heralds the permanent closing of the greenhouse door to protect the crops inside. Tomatoes will stop fruiting, but those on the vine will continue to ripen and are normally harvestable until the end of November.
Wind Protection Some of the hardier Winter crops will also be happy to receive some help to get them through the colder months. Autumn brings stronger winds, so have some stakes ready for the taller plants like kale and Brussel sprouts. These guys may be tough in the face of cold weather, but their height makes them vulnerable during gusty periods.
Dismantle and clean any structures before the windy days come too, especially if they are made from bamboo canes. The cold and grotty weather will make the canes brittle, and strong winds can snap them. Brittle canes can also break at the bottom when you try and pull them from the ground – no good if you planning on re-using your canes in the years ahead.
Rhubarb and Rain Rhubarb will prefer replenishment to protection, so pull up any unused stems, and add a thick layer of well rotted manure around the crowns. Rhubarb is a hungry plant, and this will aid recovery no end. Wave goodbye and look forward to the little pink stems poking through the soil again next year.
And of course, it rains more. Lots more. It’s therefore vital to harvest any fruit of veg that needs storing before the rain spoils them. Dig up the remaining maincrop potatoes to stop them rotting in the soil, and don’t let squashes lay on wet ground too long, as this will damage the skin.
Rough dig bare patches of the plot before the rain makes the soil heavy to work, especially if your soil is made up of clay. Your back will thank you if you can get as much dug over before Winter!
There’s something else that has also got me reflecting too. I’ve not had to think that hard to work this one out, but it has been a very welcome reminder: soil is king, and it’s health and fertility is vital for good crops.
The squashes went mad because the soil has been amazingly fertile. The other crops that did fight their way through the mess have also been brilliant. The mangetout, beets, sweetcorn and carrots that were in that bed were the best I’ve ever grown.
In the other main bed, things haven’t been as huge and the plants have not looked anywhere near as healthy. Although both were new beds, the soil was different, and it was clear there wasn’t as much good organic matter present as there was in the squash bed.
Here are some pointers that will help my second bed be as good as my first, and hopefully help improve your soil too.
What is Organic Matter?
To grow healthy, bountiful fruit and veg, we are reliant on the soil. Feeding the soil to create a rich base for our plants is arguably the most important thing a veg grower does all year.
To improve the long term fertility and structure of the soil, we need to be adding organic matter. Organic matter is the partially decomposed remains of soil organisms, vegetation and plant life, such as grass and leaves.
Although organic matter will typically only account for a small part of the soil make up, it plays a vital role in holding everything together and retaining moisture, as well as storing and providing nutrients and food for all forms of life within your soil.
Adding organic matter to your soil is an ongoing job, as the plants you grow will eventually use up all the nutrients and that goodness will need replenishing.
Types of Organic Matter
Often, the type of organic matter that you add to your soil will depend on individual factors, such as space, cost and what is available locally.
Horse and cow manure is a popular organic matter amongst generations of gardeners. The very best muck is the jet black, well-rotted stuff which has been left for a year, and is often delivered to allotment plots on the back of trucks.
Well-rotted, homemade compost is an exceptional form of organic matter, but making enough can be tricky if you have a large allotment. However, it’s easy to make and cheap.
When I lived by the coast, I used seaweed. The black, bladderwrack type contains all the nutrients plants require for good growth, and can be dug straight in without washing the salt off.
Spent hops are another freebie manure, and are often left outside local breweries for gardeners to take away. Again, these can simply be dug straight into the soil.
Green manure involves growing a cover of specific plants right across a bed, and digging in later on. A good crop of green manures offers protection to the soil during bad weather, suppresses weeds and stop nutrients escaping.
How to Add Organic Matter
The organised allotmenteerist will add their organic matter of choice during the Autumn. Most of the the beds will have been cleared ready for Winter, and doing this job early will give any organic matter the maximum time to rot down into the soil. Don’t panic if you miss this deadline though – any time through Winter will still be okay.
Spread a layer of the organic matter all over your beds. Approximately 2 – 4 inches in depth is perfect. If there are any veg still left in the bed, don’t go too close to them as the richness in the manure can sometimes burn the plants.
Some gardeners choose to leave the manure on the top to allow the worms and other microorganisms to incorporate it into the soil as they go about their daily business. This is called the No Dig Method.
Traditionally, manure is dug in, either at the point of spreading, or at a later date once the organic matter has had chance to work into the soil. Dig the soil in to the dept of your spade, and break up any clumps before sowing or planting.
I’m not very good at song lyrics. I don’t tend to hear them properly. I think I know a line, but in fact I’m normally singing it incorrectly. What’s more, I sing it over and over for the rest of the day. ‘One line Jono’, my wife calls me.
I had one of those incorrect lines going around my head as I pulled my squash plants up recently.
(Look at all this by the way! From just 2 squash plants!)
Anyhow, getting to that song lyric…
Cavolo Nero, Kale, Fragile French Beans and Bendy Leeks
There isn’t much left of the kale and cavolo nero after the squash suffocation. I’m going to miss those guys in the winter. The plants are so reliable and hardy – it’s funny how in past years my kale has survived heavy snow and frost, torrential rain and hurricane strength wind but in the end, it’s been massive squashes that have got them.
The burden of the squash plants have also left me with bendy leeks. The plants have reasonable shanks for this time of year but there aren’t many that have been strong enough to take the weight of the overrunning squash vines. Fingers crossed that with a few weeks of summer left they may find the energy to revert back to an upright state.
And the less said about the fragile French beans, the better.
Suddenly, frowning at the damage caused by the squashes, added with the mess of my greenhouse and the natural contemplation that comes from a week’s holiday, the lyric seemed very relevant.
‘Trying to make some sense from it all…’
The words weren’t at all what the singer was actually singing, but they did fit neatly with my reflective mood.
Lewis, Rory and Carrots I decided that it’s not been all bad. The beets have been belting, as was the mangetout. And my carrots were a big success by virtue of some beautiful examples, if not quantity. These three crops have got something in common, too: I grew them all with Lewis.
By far the most enjoyment this year has come from the time spent on the patch with the boys. I’ve grown huge, money saving squashes and good crops of equally profitable strawberries, raspberries and rhubarb, and normally this is something I’d have taken great pleasure from (I wrote a book about saving money from growing veg, after all), but I’m sensing a change in the wind.
I mean, I grew carrots! I never bother with carrots anymore. At pennies per kilo, what’s the point?
Well, the point this year was that Lewis enjoyed the carrots. He sowed them with me, and they grew quickly. They’re fun to harvest too. I’ve never enjoyed growing carrots this much before. And as an added bonus, Lewis ate one too (just one, but still!).
We’ve grown other things from start to finish, and Rory has joined in regularly too. I’ve had to manage both the boys’ attention spans, but that’s one of the advantages of growing in a garden rather than an allotment. When the boys are bored, they can go back to their trains.
So as I survey the patch, humming the wrong words to a song, I think there is a sense being made of it all. Tastes change, as to reasons for growing. And I think I’ve found a new one.
With school still out for the summer, Lewis and I took ourselves foraging for blackberries on our bikes. This is Lewis’ first six weeks off as a school kiddie, and on a lazy Monday afternoon, this felt like a lovely school holiday kind of thing to do. I’m definitely going to make this a staple of summer school holidays to come.
We did go foraging for blackberries last year after Lewis declared he wanted to make a blackberry and chocolate cake, but given massive amounts of chocolate in the recipe I used, I wanted to steer him towards something at least a little bit more wholesome this time around.
With some gentle persuasion we settled on flapjack. As a flapjack lover, this was certainly no problem for me, so I set about finding a recipe.
Blackberry and Apple Flapjack by the Contented Baker Some googling picked up a blackberry and apple recipe, on The Contented Baker’s blog. The blog doesn’t appear to be active anymore, which is a shame as there are some gorgeous looking recipes on there. Check the site out in case it comes down any time soon!
As fate would have it, we collected exactly 150g of blackberries, which is precisely what you require for the recipe, and after a raid next door for a couple of Bramleys we were all set for an afternoon’s baking.
At this point I have to admit that despite my obsession with porridge, I have no idea what buckwheat porridge flakes are, so we made up the normal oats to 375g. Apart from that we followed the recipe as is.
A Good Recipe for Children For parents out there, I’d say this is a good recipe to make with children. Not only are flapjacks are easy, the squishing and spreading of the blackberries to make the ‘flapjack sandwich’ gives this recipe some added interest. The recipe was also short enough for Lewis to maintain his interest; no mean feat when Bitz and Bobs is playing on loop in the living room.
I was half expecting the blackberry and apple mixture to bubble up through the top oat layer but everything stayed where we put it and and the result was a perfectly presentable flapjack. The boys waited (im)patiently for the cake to cool before it cut easily into slices without any breaking up.
A Proper Flapjack Recipe This is a proper flapjack recipe – no holding back on the butter and syrup so that nothing really sticks together, and the flapjacks taste all the better for it. The blackberries are sweet and a classic mix with the apple, with the caster sugar taking the edge off any tartness.
Rhubarb Flapjack? They’ve also given me an idea on how I might make a rhubarb flapjack work too. Rhubarb is my favourite fruit to cook with and I’ve a long held ambition to conjure a flapjack from the stems. I’ve never found a recipe, and thought that this is probably because it would be hard to hold the juices in, but I reckon this solid flapjack recipe could be up to the challenge.
I’ve a few stems to use up before the summer’s out, so watch this space on that one. In the meantime, I’d definitely suggest filling your boots with the bountiful blackberries and giving this recipe a go.
For extra indulgence I would also thoroughly recommend these flapjacks as a dessert with custard.
So this got me thinking. I wrote the original post after a couple of years of owning a greenhouse, using the tips and knowledge I’d picked up along the way. Here I was reflecting again, with lots more learnt. Perhaps it was time for an update…
Here are 9 More Beginner’s Tips for Greenhouse Growing, and a further checklist for yours truly to follow in future growing seasons!
With the heightened temperatures, a lot can happen quickly in a greenhouse, so make sure you visit regularly to keep a good eye on things. Every day is recommended, but try and get there at least once a day if you can.
Sideshoots on tomato plants will often appear during the course of a day, and plants can rapidly out grow their supports and require re-tieing. You won’t want to miss harvesting that juicy red tomato before it goes over either.
Start as You Mean to Go On
With regular visits in mind, start as you mean to go on. Get into a routine from day one, and try and set aside the same time every day to visit. If you can develop a habit, this will help see you through until the end of the season.
Think About the Future
One thing that I regularly overlook is that a greenhouse is for more than just sowing seeds in the Spring. Once those seeds have moved on to their new home in the veg beds, the greenhouse provides an invaluable space for other crops, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as extending the growing season into Autumn. Plan ahead and grow crops this reason too.
Don’t Over Plant
After infrequent visits, this is my biggest mistake of 2019. I’ve tried to cram far too many large plants into the greenhouse, which has resulted in poor crops and an untidy environment. Overgrown plants also prevent good air circulation between plants and encourage diseases such as blight.
When planting out, bear in mind that the plants could grow bigger than outdoor crops due to the warmer conditions, so take spacing advice from the seed packets and add a few more centimetres.
Again, visit daily if you can. A greenhouse will dry out quickly during hot weather, so make sure you’re on top of things. Check the base of the plant to see if the soil has dried out, but keep that water coming before the plants start to wilt.
Plant seedlings in grooves to keep the water around the base of the plant. This will channel the water into the roots, rather than running off as the soil hardens.
And when you do water, water well. Don’t (like me this year…) toss a quick watering can full of water erratically over the soil and be done with it.
Control the Weeds
Just like seedlings, weeds will start growing earlier than outside so don’t let them take a grip. Keep weeds down with regular hoeing, and use weed suppressant fabric or cardboard on bare soil. This will rob the weeds of sunlight and prevent them growing.
Don’t forget the weeds outside of the greenhouse. Keep the perimeter clear to stop weeds coming in under your base.
Choose the Right Plants to Grow
A greenhouse is the place for tender plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers and aubergines, but definitely not somewhere for plants that go bonkers and take over. Try to resist the temptation to grow butternut squashes (like I did this year…) and courgettes inside unless your greenhouse is of polytunnel proportions.
Open the Door and the Hatch
On very warm days, remember to open the hatch as well as the door as greenhouses can reach incredible temperatures and scorch even those plants that love the heat. By opening the hatch, hot air will be released through the roof to complement the cool air drawn in by the door.
‘Do you know why you haven’t got many tomatoes in your greenhouse?’
`‘Because you haven’t been sideshooting them.’
‘Have you been talking to granny?’
5 year olds eh. Think they know everything.
The photo is of my rather embarrassing greenhouse. I’m so embarrassed by the contents of this greenhouse that when we go on holiday in a couple of weeks time, I’m not even going to ask the neighbours to return the favour and water the plants inside.
I’m sure I did sideshoot the tomatoes. I certainly sideshooted some, but clearly not enough if you listen to Lewis and my mum. The result is a jungle of out of shape tomato plants taking over but not actually producing many fruits.
Too Much in the Greenhouse! I planted 2 bush tomatoes and 2 normal plants, but with hindsight this is too much in the space, especially if like me you also decided to plant an aubergine, 2 cucumbers, 2 basil, a chilli and a butternut squash. Yes, you read that right – I thought it a good idea to plant a butternut squash in my greenhouse.
The squash plant did fruit, and I found the fruit hanging over the back of one of the maincrop tomatoes, subsequently snapping the top of the stem in half.
Inconsistent Watering What’s more, I don’t think I’ve watered well enough. The problem with my garden is that it is on a hill. There is a steep set of steps to get up there, and then once you’re on the lawn, an incline all the way to the back where the greenhouse is. I also have no outside tap, so I have to fill the watering cans from the kitchen and lug them from there.
After a day at work, I have to confess that I’ve been lazy and watering has definitely not been consistent. That’s a slap on the wrist and a must do better for next year.
The lack of watering has certainly affected the cucumbers. Whilst I’ve had a crop, the plants finished way earlier than they should have done and this has been due to lack of water.
Listen To My Own Advice! So clearly the greenhouse is this Summer’s Ugly. Very ugly in fact, and particularly galling when I refer back to my current most popular post of all time, 8 Beginner’s Tips for Greenhouse Growing, where tip number 4 proudly says:
Keep the greenhouse neat and tidy
I’m passing on this tip because I’m rubbish at doing it. I wish I was tidier, I really do. Trouble is, I put things down and think ‘I’ll move that later’. I do this in the house too. Typical man.
Take it from me, keeping the greenhouse tidy is important as you’ll want as much room as possible when seed sowing really kicks off. You’ll want space on the potting bench to manoeuvre compost and pots, and you’ll need somewhere to put the pots when you’ve sown seeds in them.
After a season of not having a greenhouse, I now also remember that I’ll want as much room as possible for planting out as well as seed sowing.
It Doesn’t Take Much For Things To Go Wrong It’s a funny old thing, growing your own veg. You think you’ve got everything nailed, with a solid blueprint in place for consistent, year-on-year growing but it doesn’t take much to knock everything well out of sync: forgetting to do something, a slight lack of commitment, unexpected weather – it could be anything. Let something slip right at the beginning though, and it’s often very tricky to turn things around.
Especially if you don’t sideshoot your tomatoes, but then I guess it is one good way of managing a glut!
‘Bad?’ I hear you cry! ‘How can massive squashes be bad?’
Well, let me explain.
When your main bed is 12ft by 6ft, and the two squashes that you plant out in two of the corners grow so large that they take over three quarters of that bed, you’ve got a few problems.
Untidy For a start, it looks very untidy. I’ve always felt that a few unruly plants doesn’t matter too much when you’ve got an allotment. Allotments can be scruffier by nature, and so long as you don’t upset the committee, everything is pretty free and easy. When your patch is in your garden, in full view from the house, there is a bit more of a duty to keep things in check.
Everything Else is Smothered! However, the primary problem is that the squashes have smothered everything else in the bed. Underneath the dense foliage lurk underdeveloped and neglected carrots, leeks, French beans, salad leaves, curly kale and cavolo nero. There has only been room for a crop of mangetout and beetroot at the top end of the bed. Everything else is fighting against the squashes.
This has resulted in a few difficulties for the other baby plants. It’s been a very dry summer of course, but when it has rained, little water has broken through to the other plants, meaning I’ve had to water a lot more. The sunlight getting through has also been reduced to what a seed packet might call ‘partial shade’.
Spoiling Lewis and Rory’s Fun There has also been an impact on the the boys fun and interest too, after an exciting start for them to the season. Both Lewis and Rory’s intrigue in the veg patch heightened at the beginning of the year. Lewis helped sow most of the seeds, and took great pride in telling friends and visitors about the veg patch.
Before the squashes took over, we harvested some early carrots and took daily trips down the end of the garden to pick the excellent mangetout crop. In fact, so much was his interest this year, that he actually cried when I picked some mangetout without him!
Could I Really Not Grow Squashes Next Year? As the squashes began to dominate, little else was available to harvest. Looking to the future and trying to foster the boys’ interest in the veg patch, I think that big, dominating plants with long growing seasons could be on their way out. Lots of rows of quick growing crops to ensure regular harvests may well be the way to go.
Yet on the other hand, I’ve always grown squashes. They are so versatile, and if stored well, provide a brilliant crop to use through the winter. And they’re a true money saver as well. At around £1.50 a kilo in the shops, most of this year’s squashes are worth well over £2 – and there are 10 of them waiting to be had!
So this year, my butternut squashes are outrageous.
Like, I’ve-never-seen-anything-quite-like-it-before levels of outrageousness.
I planted 2 squash plants on the edge of a raised bed in Spring, with the idea that I would be able to train the runners to grow out and along the path, rather than sprawl over the rest of the bed. As you’ll see from the photo, this hasn’t been the case, and my two squash plants have basically turned triffid, but a nice one.
Biiiiig Squashes This has simultaneously become the good and the bad of the Summer (but not the ugly – that’s my greenhouse, which I’ll share with great embarrassment later in the week…). The good (bloody good) is because already I have 10 huge squashes, the biggest of which hits the scales at a heavyweight 3.1 kg, whilst the smallest has broken the 1.8 kg mark. And it’s only just turned August.
Excuse the dodgy pyjama trousers. It was early.
Normally, a squash plant will typically produce 2-3 medium sized squashes, with maybe one being a couple of kilos if the plant fancies showing off. To get 10 fruits from 2 plants, has left me bewildered as well as chuffed.
Why Are The Squashes So Big? I’ve been asking myself how this has happened, and after some pondering I think I might have the answer. I built the raised beds on an area that I cleared over the Winter, and once completed, the soil was full of decomposed plants and roots. At the time I thought that the soil looked incredible fertile, and it seemed I may well have been proved right.
Also, the previous owner of the house kept chickens, and when we came to look around before with the estate agent, I seem to recall that the chicken pen was located roughly where my squashes have gone ballistic. Although I’ve never used chicken poo as a manure, I’ve read that it is the veg growing equivalent of rocket fuel, so perhaps this year’s exceptional squash results are also something to do with the garden’s last incumbents.
Harvesting Early With such growth so early in the season, I have been forced to pick the squashes to stop them growing too large and turn into giant exhibition specimens rather than tasty produce for the plate. I’ve never done this before, normally waiting until the fruits are ready in September and October so I’ve no idea how things will go, but I’m hoping they will still ripen up off the plant okay.
Incredibly, the two plants are also still flowering. There seems to be no stopping them. I doubt that this late in the year anything else useful will yield, but it’s a very happy feeling knowing just how fertile and rich the soil in my beds are.