All hail the green summer of 2013, you'll be missed
The close of the warm season doesn't mean the end of the year's growing – there are plenty of autumn crops yet to be harvested
There's a definite sense of the summer winding down. The kids are back to school, so it's back to frenetic mornings getting everyone out the door and the daily school runs. The leisurely mornings of summer are already a distant memory.
Colder, darker evenings are closing in – it's dark at 8pm now and the other day I got a shock when getting up for an early train to discover it was pitch dark at 6am. It seems like only yesterday that we were enjoying up to 18 hours of daylight a day. How odd it all seems! I had a sinking feeling last night watching the weather forecast, where they mentioned that it could be cold enough for a frost at nights. How did that happen?
We can't complain of course – it's been an amazing summer, certainly the best I've enjoyed since I started growing my own food about eight years ago. There was that incredible heat wave back in July (which will linger long in the memory), and even when that passed it remained mostly warm, dry and sunny for the rest of the summer.
The most depressing thing about the abysmal summers of the last few years was a terrible sense that cold and wet weather had officially become our summer climate. This summer proved that not to be the case, and I think the national mood was all the better for it. It was a proper summer, a summer like the ones we can remember from our childhood.
Let's be honest, growing vegetables in cold and wet weather is no fun at all. Over the last few years, our big challenge in GIY was to (somewhat half-heartedly) try to convince novice growers to stick at it, that it wouldn't always be this much of a drudgery. This year, it was quite simply a joy to be out in the garden raking, weeding, harvesting and watering (yes, watering outside was another of this year's novelties) – the sun on our backs and a song in our hearts. So, before we move on, let us say this – all hail summer 2013!
Thankfully, there's still warmth by day and enough happening in the veg patch to remind us that this is autumn, the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness". Autumn is harvest time, and the wonderful summer veg are now joined in their abundance by their autumn fruit and veg cousins. So on top of the still resplendent courgettes, tomatoes, peas, beans, potatoes, cucumbers, onions, salad crops and the like, we now have pears, plums, apples, autumn raspberries, squashes and pumpkins to enjoy.
It has been a wonderful year for fruit and our plum, pear and apple trees are laden down with fruit. There is something so primal about watching a fruit tree carefully and waiting for the perfect moment to harvest the fruit. Each time I pick a delicious, warm, soft plum from the tree to eat I can't help being repeatedly surprised by the idea that I can grow something so delicious, so exotic, in my own garden. Seriously, if you have the space, get yourself a plum tree.
I am keeping a close eye on the pumpkins and squashes too – we are harvesting an occasional squash, though I always think that hard-skinned fruit are worth keeping for later in the year, particularly since there is an abundance of more perishable food (like cucumbers, courgettes etc) to eat.
The pumpkins are only weeks away now from being harvested. The bed they are in is a mess of foliage, and so I have cut some of it back to allow the sunlight in to the fruit. This will help the skins firm up. It also pays to put a slate or stone underneath fruit that's sitting on soil. Damp soil can cause the pumpkin to rot.
This week we got three beds of spuds out of the ground and into hessian sacks for storage. We laid them on a wire rack in the sun first for a few days to dry them out a little.
I got four big sack loads, which was pleasing. I am a little peeved at how many of the spuds I am losing to pests – something (slugs, wireworms?) is mining its way in to the centre of the spuds.
It's frustrating because you don't generally know the potato is ruined until you've peeled and chopped it, only to discover that tiny hole on the surface was actually the entry point for a network of tunnels through the spud you want to eat. Anyway, there's enough of a harvest that perhaps I can afford to be magnanimous.
After removing the spuds, I raked the soil in the beds to a fine tilth and sowed green manures (buckwheat and clover). Leaving a bed bare after harvesting is not a wise idea since whatever nutrients are left in the soil will be washed away over the winter months. So, your options are either to grow some quick-growing veg (like white turnips, oriental leaves etc); cover the bed with a compost/manure; or sow a green manure. While there's still some growth left in the year, I like the idea of the latter.
Green manures are plants grown specifically to return fertility to your veg patch, mostly by taking nitrogen from the air and fixing it in the soil. There's an added benefit that they suppress weeds, and provide a haven for insects.
They are pretty easy to sow too (once you've done the hard work of digging and raking the soil). Simply scatter the seed on the surface (this is known as broadcasting), then rake the bed again, and keep it well watered and moist until the seeds germinate. At this time of the year, they should do so quite quickly.
The green manures can be left to grow in the bed over the autumn and winter, and will be cut down and chopped into the soil in spring.
* Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY.