Growing with the seasons
PUBLISHED: 17:10 17 September 2009 | UPDATED: 16:18 20 February 2013
Leigh Clapp catches up with Nina Gresham at her Sheet allotment for the final of our four-part series of a year in the life of an allotment
Once the peak harvest is complete, Nina's main tasks of the autumn are clearing spent crops, filling up the compost bins and a general tidying up ready for winter. "There's something very satisfying to clearing all the dying plants, untying the bean poles and pulling the withered plants off, and digging the ground over.
After a busy summer, and when we have had our fill of delicious fresh vegetables over the summer months and into autumn, it's quite cathartic to clear it all away and by the end of autumn, I'm looking forward to a rest!
"Although I still grow some crops through winter, late autumn into winter is the quietest period at the allotment and time for a break - get some rest ready for renewed enthusiasm and planning next year's crops by the fire in winter," she explains.
Frequent visits are still enjoyed by the family, before the 'hibernation period', as the beginning of autumn is a busy time for harvesting some real favourites, such as sweetcorn, squashes, pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers, French beans, autumn raspberries and late blueberries. Main crop potatoes are also dug up, followed by cutting the plants right down to avoid blight, and many summer veg are still being harvested, including courgettes, cucumbers, beetroot, fennel, chard and salads.
Eve and Joe look forward each autumn to their job of shelling borlotti and French beans that have been left to ripen and dry on the plants. Some are kept for sowing the next year and the rest are fully dried out on a sunny window ledge at home before being stored in a jar to add to soups and casseroles through winter.
The emphasis shifts from eating raw foods and salads to storing and cooking produce through the colder months. "It is a welcome change to move to more warming and comforting foods of the autumn and winter," comments Nina. Excess produce is frozen - from chopped courgettes to summer fruits, or turned into chutneys and jams. Squashes are cured in the sun before storing, along with potatoes in hessian sacks or boxes, as well as hanging dried garlic and onions ready to be added to meals.
To avoid slug damage in the ground, Nina will add beetroots and carrots, stored in boxes of sand, to the selection this year. Roasted vegetables, leek and potato soup, and fruit pies will be just some of the treats in store for the family.
Keep on growing
Produce that will still be grown on the allotment through the autumn and winter continues to need tending and protecting from pests. There are wonderful lettuces, salad leaves, stir fry greens, mustard and spicy leaves under cloches or fleece. Netted brassicas, leeks, cabbages, sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli and kale add further fresh choices.
Family visits to the allotment in the evenings reduce as the days get shorter. "With the children back at school we also make less weekday visits but still visit as a family on weekends when the children can join in with harvesting or with tending their own plots." Nina adds.
Chores to do
Tidying up and preparing for the dormant time includes the last mowing of the grass, covering crops, winter fruit pruning, clearing, digging over the ground and raking the plentiful leaves, from the neighbouring oaks, to go into the leaf mould bin - after a year or two they will be a great, free soil improver.
To protect the soil and prevent all the nutrients leaching out, Nina covers open ground with green manures, leaves or weighted opened-out cardboard boxes. A delivery of manure from the local farmer will be covered to rot down further over winter ready for use in spring.
"With a large amount of material to put in the compost bins, it's a good time to start new compost bins. If I haven't already used all my compost from the bins, then I may empty the bins at this time of the year ready to make space for all the cleared crops."
Failures and new resolutions
Each year sees new challenges, successes and failures as Nina continues to hone the allotment. The wet July, insufficient heat and slugs resulted in a failed melon crop.
However the plan is to try again next year by planting them out earlier to give them a longer growing period and this time under cloches. Blackfly was a greater problem this year, needing vigilance at each visit to remove them without spraying. Crushed-up eggshells proved effective against slugs and feeding onions with woodash worked really well.
"The onions were a great size and few bolted, which I had found to be a problem in the past. The garlic has been really good too and seemed to do well with woodash," she adds. The strawberries and currants were superb successes with the early warm start to summer this year.
Plans to continue to work with the warmer weather early in the season will see Nina making the first sowings of crops such as carrots, lettuces and beetroot in February.
Saving a couple of garlic bulbs grown this year and planted late autumn or early spring, so that the garlic adapts to the soil, seems to grow a better and bigger crop.
Fruit trees, an apple, pear and fig, and more fruit bushes will be added through winter as they are family favourites and are easier to maintain once established.
"The most challenging task on the allotment is protecting crops from all the creatures that want a share. This is particularly challenging through autumn and winter when the birds get hungrier and winds can blow down cages and netting. We'll be growing more of the crops that are easiest to grow and don't need covering, such as leeks, chard, courgettes, cucumbers, squash, beetroot, salad, onions and beans," explains Nina. A general assessment of the results from the allotment will be discussed and planning for next year decided through winter.
Nina's budget-busting ideas
Use autumn leaves - make a simple leaf mould bin by wrapping chicken wire around 4 stakes. Alternatively, fill black sacks with leaves, tie up and puncture a few holes with a garden fork. Leaf mould is ready to dig into the ground after a year and is a great and completely free soil improver. Alternatively leave leaves covering bare soil to protect ground over winter, or use as a mulch around plants such as fruit bushes. Collect fallen branches and needles from fir trees to use as mulch around blueberries.
Manure - buying a bulk load from a local farmer is a really cheap way of improving a large area of ground such as an allotment. Local stables can also be a free or cheap source of manure - maybe offer some produce in return for free manure?
Grow green manures - such as field beans, phacelia or ryegrass, to protect the soil over winter, prevent weeds growing and boost fertility. There are many different types of green manure crops that suit different sowing times and soil types.
Old grobags - once I have finished with them in autumn, I cut them open and use them in my cold frame for growing salad leaves through winter. Salads are quite happy growing in used compost and this means I get more use and better value from
Seed saving - for varieties that have grown particularly well this year, collect and dry the seeds, saving them in paper bags, foil or plastic pots for sowing next year.