A successful harvest

September Gardening Gleanings

As my four-year stint writing this blog for Dobies of Devon comes towards its end, I approach the future with a sense of adventure. Harvest in (well most of it) – the perfect time for reflection. Maybe my musings and these September Gardening Gleanings will inspire you to assess your own plot and re-establish its identity. Unlike Spring when all is bustle and busyness, or Summer when the days are insufficiently long to accomplish all the necessary gardening tasks, the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” (Keats) allows you to step back and THINK.

As Andi Clevely says in Your Kitchen Garden Month-by-Month, you “might want to change the arrangement of beds, plan different crops, or even try challenging new methods such as extending the season by growing under glass or mulching as a labour-saving alternative to heavy digging.” Why not?

Challenging one’s personal comfort zone

Thoughts and plans are worked out in my illustrated garden diary.

Thoughts and plans are worked out in my illustrated garden diary.

Taking those themes as perhaps a starting point, let’s begin by thinking organic gardening, growing as wide a selection of plants as is practicable in available space whilst raising the soil fertility. Adding compost – and growing the types of flowers throughout the year to encourage beneficial insects and other creatures. No sprays! Control weeds by hoeing and high-density planting. Practise no-dig techniques which save time and energy. Use mulches from your own compost heap, or grow comfrey under the hedge – cut when fresh and lay it over bare patches or between rows.

Grow comfrey as a crop - for mulching, compost, and as a bee plant.

Grow comfrey as a crop – for mulching, compost, and as a bee plant.

Why not try ‘companion planting’ where certain vegetables, fruit and flowers are planted in close proximity to each other, each gaining benefit from the presence of others. Contrary to all being good neighbours, some combinations are not so beneficial and should be avoided. By googling ‘companion plants’, I discovered a most useful list: take a look, for you will assuredly discover all manner of facts you did not know.

Press visit to the Agroforestry Research Trust garden to discover more about permaculture (and gardening in layers)

Press visit to the Agroforestry Research Trust garden to discover more about permaculture (and gardening in layers)

Going one stage further, you could convert to a system of permaculture, which combines no-dig, organic and companion planting in such a way as to be highly productive, with minimal detrimental impact on the environment. I was privileged a few years ago to be part of a group of journalists who were invited to tour the 2-acre forest garden run by Martin Crawford, director of the Agroforestry Research Trust. This teaching space and trials site in Dartington (near Totnes in south Devon) offers courses to interested gardeners.

Time for relaxed learning

Camera and notebook in hand, I enjoy an Autumn visit to the National Trust's Upton House, Oxfordshire, UK

Camera and notebook in hand, I enjoy an Autumn visit to the National Trust’s Upton House, Oxfordshire, UK

Is your brain already reeling? Why not take time out and go visiting. National Trust properties have so much to offer the serious or casual visitor. Gardens are at their autumnal best right now – I always advocate that you should take a notebook and camera with you for some in-depth study. General shots and close ups – maybe even sketches if you are that way inclined. Look closely at this time of year at such aspects as the staking of herbaceous borders, the harvesting of fruit and veg (maybe pumpkins laid out in a row); and always happy accidents – plant groupings, gateways and containers, the garden as part of the surrounding landscape.

What is this? Close inspection along one of the terraced borders at Upton House, Oxfordshire, UK (National Trust)

What is this? Close inspection along one of the terraced borders at Upton House, Oxfordshire, UK (National Trust)

I am fascinated by the practice of allowing plants to self-seed, packing a punch with their jostling, their exultant joy at being alive and well. Of course, if you left nature to it’s own devices, the thugs would win. Gradually any garden reverts to nature and becomes a wilderness. (I know, to my cost, though what has happened here in our acre was not of my choosing, though definitely of my making – more on that in my final post). By all means shake those foxgloves or poppies but remember that whilst you want dense planting, overcrowding will just cause weak and spindly specimens. Good plants for experimentation are many herbs – such as cultivated arugula (rocket), perennial marjoram, echium, honesty (lunaria annua) for its early scented flowers and silvery dried seedpods. And borage. You will of course know why if you read my second August post!

Saving Vegetable Seeds

A most useful little book

And whilst thinking about relaxed learning in this September Gardening Gleanings, how about this? A lovely little book, and only just published by Storey Publishing in their ‘Storey Basics – Books for Self-Reliance’ series. Saving Vegetable Seeds by Fern Marshall Bradley reintroduces the home-gardening tradition of saving seed as part of the ordinary seasonal routine, passed down from generation to generation. There’s nothing intimidating about this title, with its easy to follow text and clear sketch illustrations showing you ‘how’. And lest you should wonder why I recommend a book that might seem to be contrary to the marketing needs of a seed and plant company – the money saved could be invested in a fruit tree, special shrub or other desirable plants.

Think Autumn now – and fast forward Spring

Garlic ready for planting (split the clump into separate cloves first)

Garlic ready for planting (split the clump into separate cloves first)

If like me you have been trawling through the latest Dobies catalogues, you will no doubt have a list as long as your arm of desirable purchases. Although there are deadlines for ordering certain ‘live’ plants, it’s a good idea to partition your purchases into ‘must plant now’, ‘re-pot and hold’ over winter, or ‘create a holding bed’ for shrubs and trees if you are totally revamping your plot. I’ve never tried planting garlic in the autumn, which might account for what I had hoped would be an excellent crop in previous years. This year (as part of my autumn adventure), I rather fancy trialling the French-grown, softneck Germidour. Not quite sure where, but that’s part of the thrill of re-structuring.

Allow some plants to over-winter - after this tortoiseshell butterfly will come flocks of goldfinches.

Allow some plants to over-winter – after this tortoiseshell butterfly will come flocks of goldfinches.

Hurrah for garden wildlife! Oh what joy it was to read in last month’s issue of the RHS magazine that the first phase of their ‘RHS Plants for Bugs’ project at the RHS Garden in Wisley is now complete. Staff are analysing the results of their study and hope to submit their first research paper in the New Year. Surely it goes without saying that wildlife is part of a very necessary ecological chain – pristine gardens invariably look dead, manicured, lacking in exuberance. The RHS reference to hoverflies, bee species and adult beetles including ladybirds seemed perfect to share in my September Gardening Gleanings. I will go one stage further and urge readers to desist from cutting back and clearing plant growth unnecessarily. Seed-heads look beautiful in Autumn; even more so in Winter as they become bleached and contribute to an altogether softer landscape. I’d rather see the goldfinches extracted seeds from teasels than encounter flat bare earth with no height variation of plants whenever I walk down to feed the hens each morning! New challenges

My eco-plot in its hey-day: a mixture of vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers; all designed to be beneficial to us as a family, and to wild-life.

My eco-plot in its hey-day: a mixture of vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers; all designed to be beneficial to us as a family, and to wild-life.

After all this early Autumn rambling, think backwards to what you had planned for 2014, to your achievements and failures. Make a particular note as to what was successful. You may not be able to replicate what you most liked, for we are all dealing with living material and wayward weather patterns. And of course this post was about September Gardening Gleanings, and challenging adventures. Play safe for 2015? Or …. new goals. I know which mine will be, for my once so beautiful and productive acre is in sore need of some tender loving care. The clock moves on. Gardens do not stand still but are continually needing thought and attention; not necessarily a complete ‘makeover’ (horrid word!) but possibly a drastic re-appraisal.