October is a month of transition in the edible garden. It’s time to say goodbye to a lot of plants that we’ve been tending since spring, while others are about to begin their lives or take up residency on the plot for the first time. It is also a month when the pace slows, gaps appear and there is time to take some deep breaths and reflect on the growing season that is coming to an end.
The window of opportunity for planting, sowing and mulching might seem slight this month compared to summer, but by the time the clocks go back, and November arrives, we’ll realise that it was an industrious and fruitful month. Still a month of achievement as well as reflection. Inevitably, with many harvests coming to an end, it’s a month for taking stock of which crops did well, and which ones not so well, but that’s the beauty of gardening. No two years are ever the same.
More October fruit and veg advice:
- Five crops to harvest in October
- Get growing edibles in October – with Lucy Chamberlain
- October fruit and veg with Monty
Start new edibles
It is rarely a bad year for garlic, if you plant it this month. Planting now will expose the bulbs to cold through winter, which helps the bulbs develop well, able to soldier on through summer, even if it’s warm and dry for a long time. Although they like the cold in winter, garlic bulbs don’t like having wet feet in winter (who does?). With this in mind, it is best to plant in soil that drains well, otherwise the crop can rot.
If your soil is regularly covered in puddles in winter then it’s best to plant garlic in deep module trays and keep them in a cold frame or in a sheltered spot outside for winter, before planting them out when it’s drier in spring. Separate the bulbs into cloves and plant them 2.5cm deep, and space each one 15cm apart if planting direct in the soil. Plant one clove per module if planting in trays.
Plant soft fruit in pots
Have you noticed that it is impossible to have enough currant, gooseberry or blueberry bushes in the garden? Am I the only one who has picked all the blackcurrants from a solitary bush and wondered just how many are needed to make even a solitary serving of blackcurrant squash? Anyway, this month is the perfect one for increasing your stock of soft fruits so that summer’s harvest isn’t just a mere garnish for your ice cream.
Bushes sold in pots at this time of year are often reasonably priced and, planted now, they have time to get settled in without the need for regular watering, before they start growing strongly in spring. Choose plants with pencil thick stems because these should fruit well in the following summer. Plant them at the same depth they were at in their pots and make sure you choose an open, sunny spot, so that fruits can ripen well in summer.
Sow salad in empty pots
October is a month for clearing a lot of tired annuals or spent crops from containers. Hold your horses before emptying out the whole pot though. If you can pull up your old plants without all the compost coming out, top it up with a little fresh compost, gently water it, then sprinkle some cut-and-come again-salad seeds on top.
Cover with a layer of sieved compost, pop in a label and look forward to a bonus leafy crop. Move the pot into a cold frame or well-lit conservatory or porch to encourage the leaves to develop quicker. You could even try some pea seeds, for a tasty little crop of succulent pea shoots.
Prepare the ground for new fruit trees
Planting trees when they look ‘dead’, to the untrained eye, is one of the joys of gardening for me. It’s the ultimate exercise in hope, foresight and taking life slow. The antidote to so much that happens in the modern world. By planting a tree, you are setting in motion the development of a true thing of wonder. A landmark that can form childhood memories, house birds (hopefully not hungry ones if it’s a cherry tree!) and form a significant part of the landscape.
Yet when you’re doing it it looks like you are just ‘dropping a stick into a hole’! It’s best to plant when the trees are fully dormant in winter but now is the time to prepare the soil. Choose the site carefully. A sunny, sheltered spot where the tree won’t cast unwanted shade is best. Thoroughly remove perennial weeds and fork in a generous helping of well-rotted compost into the planting area so that you are ready to plant next month.
Make more plants
Take hardwood cuttings of gooseberries
Sometimes my heart sinks when I’m told something is ‘easy’ to do but compared to taking cuttings of other plants, gooseberry cuttings are some of the most straightforward (except for having to navigate the sharp spines on the stems!).
Take cuttings from thick, healthy stems, making a cutting 25cm long, with a slanted cut at the top and a flat one at the bottom, just below a bud. This is to ensure you know which way up your cuttings should go, as they won’t root if planted upside down. Strip any remaining leaves off the cutting and all but the top three or four buds, then insert them into deep pots of gritty cuttings compost. Insert them around the edge of the pot, not touching each other, so that half the cutting is buried. Leave them in a sheltered place outside and you should have rooted cuttings ready to plant out next autumn.
My goodness, rhubarb can become a monster! Given half a chance it spreads out and acts like a big, low umbrella on my veg patch and before I know it there are plants lost underneath its canopy, starved of rain! Splitting the clumps towards the end of the month when leaves have died down will keep them in check and also encourage good vigorous growth next year.
Use a spade to dig deep around the edge of the clump, then lever it up. Chop the plant into sections, making sure that each has at least one healthy growing point. Sections around the edge of the clump will do best. Plant straight away into good, bulky soil with lots of well-rotted home-made compost or leafmould added, and water well after planting. A sunny site is best although rhubarb will still crop well (but not be quite as sweet) in shade.
Look out for reduced-price fruit and herb plants in nurseries and garden centres this month. Herbs such as lavender and thyme that might look a bit scruffy, at this time of year, but can bounce back if planted in a sunny spot in well-drained soil or a pot of good quality peat-free multi-purpose compost, provided the growth is not all old and woody and there is some healthy growth low down on the plant. Fruit bushes are also often marked down but only because they are naturally showing tatty leaves as autumn arrives, so they are worth snapping up too.
Caring for special crops
One of the great mysteries of life is why people grow pumpkins and don’t eat them! How these delicious crops are used merely as a craft material in October is beyond me. Months of growth, watering and feeding, to simply be discarded, missing out on delicious pumpkin pies or succulent roasted pumpkin that makes a fine, sweet veg for a roast dinner. And just one pumpkin is the source of a lot of food, surely impossible to ignore in times like these.
Harvest the fruits before frost gets a chance to spoil them, cutting each one off with at least 10cm of stalk intact if you plan to store the fruit for any length of time. Then pull up the old plants, chop them up and put them on the compost heap, so the area can be weeded before winter.
Cut perfect caulis
Those beautiful looking cauliflowers that you’ve been nurturing for months can be turned to a black and mushy mess if hard frost gets at them but those sown in late spring should be ready this month before winter bites. Cut off the heads while they are still compact and cut them low enough so that the softest leaves around the head are kept intact because they are tasty too. If a very early frost is forecast, cover any heads not ready yet with a layer of fleece, to be on the safe side.
Firm in brassicas
Hardy brassicas such as cabbages, swedes, kale and Brussels sprouts are the hardcore members of the veg patch. They’ll stand there in snow and ice and give healthy, heavyweight harvests through the darkest months of the year. While they shrug off cold they are prone to being rocked by the wind and grow best in firm, compacted soil that keeps their bulky growth well anchored. Root disturbance can disrupt the development of your crops. If you’ve ended up with ‘fluffy’ Brussels sprouts, this is most likely why. When soil isn’t too wet, get your boots on and firm the soil around each plant with the ball of your foot, to keep them well-firmed in for the months ahead.
Clear and care for asparagus
As the beautiful wispy foliage of asparagus starts to fall under the weight of its thick, heavy stems, it’s time to cut back the crop ready for next year. Cut the stems off at ground level to avoid leaving woody stumps. If they are left, harvesting next spring can be tricky (and painful, said from experience!). Any hollow stems left behind could also provide a home for the pest asparagus beetle to overwinter. Once you’ve cleared all the stems away, cut them up and composted them, remove perennial weeds and spread a 5cm mulch of well-rotted compost along the row.
Now is the month to start raking up as many fallen leaves as possible to make leaf mould. If you are short of space and haven’t got space for a big leaf mould heap, store them in bin liners with a few holes pierced in them. It’s a task with a slow payback, with the leaf mould at its rich, crumbly usefulness, the spring after next. But when it becomes an annual habit repeated a few times, you’ll always have ‘one batch on, one in the wash’. Use well-rotted leaf mould as a mulch or planting hole soil improver for thirsty veg crops in spring and summer. It will hold on to moisture well and reduce the watering needs of your plants.