October is usually a transitional month; there's always a certain sadness in lifting and discarding all the half-hardy annuals and perennials that have delighted us throughout the summer. Once these have gone into the compost bin, containers and the flower garden look bare and empty, but at least it gives us the chance to replenish them with spring-flowering bulbs, such as daffodils, tulips and hyacinths, and spring bedding plants - primroses, polyanthus, violas and pansies. As gardeners, we are always looking forward and, as we plant these, we know it will not be too long before we are enjoying colour in the garden once again.
It's 'all-change' in the vegetable garden too. We made our last picking of pods of the new and exclusive runner bean Aurora on 23 October - and they were delicious with Sunday lunch - which we thought was great for a vegetable which we say in the catalogue crops only until September! But now it's time to pull the plants up, along with those of courgettes, squashes and sweet corn. By the way, why not leave the roots of your runner beans in the ground, as these will provide some valuable nitrogen for the crop you will grow in that spot next year.
It may be 'goodbye' to summer vegetables, but the upside is we are now looking forward to savoy cabbages, leeks, parsnips, Brussels sprouts and kale. Call us old-fashioned, but we still believe sprouts and parsnips taste better once they have experience a frost or two - something we have not yet had on our trial ground, although nights have been getting markedly colder.
Although we feature several hardy annuals which can be sown from August to October in our catalogue, remember you can equally well be guided by the weather and prevailing conditions. If it is still reasonably mild in your area and there remains some warmth in the soil, there is no reason why you should not extend sowing of these into the first half of November. Calendula Indian Prince, Californian poppy Jelly Beans, cornflower Blue Ball and larkspur Giant Imperial Mixed are just a few of our annuals which respond well to an autumn sowing.
The seed will germinate fairly quickly, and make small plants large enough to get through the winter unscathed before turning into fine specimens which will flower before those produced from a spring sowing. Larkspur and cornflower are perfect for cutting, so you could even grow a 'crop' of these in a spare section of the vegetable garden to provide you with armfuls of flowers for the house from late spring or early summer. Incidentally, we get a strong impression that these traditional, 'cottage garden' cut flowers are coming back into vogue, although they have never gone out of fashion with us!
Bush roses can be cut back to around half their height to prevent them being rocked and loosened in the soil by winter winds. Most will also benefit from harder pruning in March, before they start into growth for next summer. Climbing roses can also be pruned to keep them tidy. Cut out weak, spindly growth, while stronger growth can be pruned by around two thirds of its length. With all roses, aim to make a clean cut with secateurs just above an outward-facing bud.
Although we mentioned it a couple of months ago, there is still just time to plant some garlic cloves. They are easy to grow and care for, and will provide an excellent crop from next May onwards. Early Purple Wight, as its name suggests, is one of the first to mature; its plump, purple-tinged bulbs will keep for up to three months, but are best consumed as soon as possible after lifting. Provence Wight yields really large, juicy bulbs, Lautrec Wight is ideal for those of you who like your garlic as 'garlicky' as possible, while Bohemian Rose and Mikulov, from Moravia, both store really well. Do find room for some garlic!
If you are growing Brussels sprouts and other winter brassicas, it may pay to net them against marauding pigeons, which can do much damage in the weeks ahead. Check sprout plants are still firm in the ground; if they seem loose at the base, hold the stem upright and heel in some soil to prevent further rocking.
Root crops such as carrot, beetroot and swede can withstand some frost, and are often best left in the ground until needed unless you have plenty of storage space indoors for them. They will certainly appreciate the added protection which a thick mulch of straw can provide before the weather turns really cold.
Maincrop potatoes in storage should be checked regularly for any signs of damage or disease. Ideally each tuber should be checked for rotting, which can spread fast. Any which show signs of rot should be removed at once, but can still be used if part of the tuber is still sound. Always store potatoes in 'breathable' bags, such as our heavy duty potato sacks. Never store your spuds in plastic bags, as this will cause them to rot in double-quick time.
November is a good time to prune fruit bushes and trees. Blackcurrants will benefit if around a third of the older, darker stems are cut back virtually to ground level with secateurs or a pair of loppers. This will encourage vigorous basal growth. Leave around six of the younger, paler stems, as these will produce next year's crop, but remove any that look weak or unhealthy. Redcurrants, whitecurrants and gooseberries grown as bushes are treated differently from blackcurrants. Reduce branches by a quarter and cut side-shoots back to two or three buds.
On apple and pear trees, reduce this year's growth on main branches by around a third, while cutting back side-shoots to about six buds. Dead or weak growth, plus any crossing branches, are best removed. The aim should be to try and produce a tree with a reasonably open centre.
If you have this autumn's apples in store, check them regularly for signs of rot and any other disease. Brown rot can sometimes be a problem. This causes the fruit to become dehydrated and prune-like. Apples are best stored in a dry, airy, frost-free environment.
Strawberry plants tend to look rather rough at this time of year. To improve matters, cut away dead or diseased foliage with secateurs, as this will help prevent an accumulation of fungal spores which may over-winter and re-infect new growth next spring. Tidying up the plants allows better air circulation round the crowns, while cold can get into the soil, thereby inducing dormancy and the prospect of a good crop next summer.