Alys Fowler

The first frost has arrived

It’s hard to motivate yourself on a cold morning but the garden might still need your attention. By midday if there’s a hint of sun it’s worth going out and dabbling in a little gardening.

The truth is the garden does not need your attention, it’s all getting along very well without you. In fact, we now know that nearly all clearing and tidying jobs that traditionally we did in preparation for winter are pointless and might even be harmful. All sorts of insects and life live in that litter of rotting leaves and old foliage. It not only protects invertebrates and small mammals, but the soil as well, which very much resents being left bare and unclothed over winter. Harsh winds and strong rains destroy the very fragile top layers, losing precious fertility and life required to sustain next year’s good growth.

So going out into the garden has little to do with the garden and everything to do with you. A half hour of sunshine, however cold you might feel will boost your vitamin D levels and fill you with a little autumn joy. Being in nature, surrounding ourselves with other lives, is very key to our wellbeing. A little gentle stretching, a brisk walk to the allotment or simply a deep intake for a cold breath of air whilst you admire the autumn colours, these are things that make us feel better, keep our immune system healthy and remind us that although the nights may be long, our days are full of surprises and delight.

And then when you’ve had your daily joy, there’s still a few things left to do in the garden that will bring delights for next spring. Autumn gardening is perhaps the loveliest for that because what you do now seems so improbable, pushing seeds and bulbs into cold, dark earth. Yet what you are rewarded with later is so full of life and colour.

Growing broad beans

Several varieties of broad beans can be planted now. Broad beans that are planted now, not only ripen quicker than spring sown beans, but they tend to miss out of getting swamped by bean aphids, those black aphids that love to suck at the new growth. If you are limited on space then the variety ‘The Sutton’ is best, because its dwarf, tough and sturdy. If you have space and you’re not too wind swept, I’d go for Aqua Claudia Dulce which is a much taller, older bean with large handsome pods, but it doesn’t do well if it's rocked in early spring winds - if this happens it should be staked.

Broad beans are liable to get chocolate spot if planted too close together. This is a fungal disease that has milk chocolate covered splodges over the leaves, stem and eventually into the pods and beans. Good air circulation is key to not allowing this to spread. So plant your beans 4-5cm deep, 25cm apart in each direction, in staggered rows or blocks. If you fear a truly hard frost you can throw some fleece or fine mesh over the patch and I often do this initially to keep mice and squirrels off the beans. In spring, once the beans have put on some growth, it’s often worth earthing them up with soil around the best of the stems to give them a little bit more support.

Growing garlic

This is also the very last window to plant autumn garlic before December sets in. You’ll find that garden centres, hardware stores and the like will still have some garlic bulbs kicking around. Firstly, make sure that they say they are autumn planted garlic. Some varieties won’t thrive from winter planting and need to wait till spring to go into the ground. Be picky and squeeze the packets to make sure all the cloves feel plump.

Split the bulb up into cloves and use any thin or small ones for cooking, only the biggest should be planted. The cloves need to be planted 10cm deep, flat end down, 18-20cm apart in each direction. If your soil is heavy then it’s a good idea to plant them on a ridge, in which case you can plant them 10cm apart in rows 25-30cm apart. The ridge will mean excess water drains away over the winter.

Blackbirds seem to be particularly fond of uprooting newly planted cloves tossing them about. It seems a good game, until they start to put the first tentative roots out and then you’ll get annoyed. After planting, either cover them with fine mesh or branches to discourage mysterious blackbirds from having a go.

Tulips

Finally, if you find any healthy tulip bulbs on discount plant a row or two somewhere. It doesn’t matter if these are garish or far from your gardens colour scheme because you’ll be planting this to pick for the house. Even the most outrageous tulip colour looks lovely in a vase. The bulbs need to be plump and not mouldy or shrivelled. Plant them 10-15cm deep, 15cm apart. You can cram them into pots if you don’t have available ground.