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Conquer the cold: seasonal gardening tips and tasks for late autumn

Tips and tasks for the May/June māra,
by Diana Noonan

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Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua –
Turn your face to the sun, let the shadow fall behind you.

With autumn settling into winter, what better advice than turning to the sun and letting the shadows fall behind you could gardeners take? Especially those who have lost so much in recent weather events. For those whose gardens have weathered the storms, or thrived in the southern warmth, the frantic rush of picking and processing is over; it’s time to wrap up the harvest for the year, cosset the edibles we still have in the beds and, most of all, look to the future with fruit, nut and berry bush plantings. If you are picking yourself up after the terrible impact of cyclones, there may even be a spare moment to engage in some ‘instant’ gardening to lift the spirits. Wherever you are in the country, make the most of the little heat that still lingers, by trapping it in cunning ways

Collect in the climbers

While the main harvest may be over, many gardeners still have peas and beans on the vines. Left where they are, the pods will grow damp, fungal disease will set in, and the crop will spoil. Unless you live in a dry part of the country, snip the harvest off the vines, and hang it undercover (such as in a shed or garage) to finish drying. Leave what’s left of the vines on their supports (if you try to tug them off, you’ll only damage your infrastructure). Over winter, the remains will wither and crisp-up, at which stage you can crumble them back onto the garden to feed the soil.

Ways to warm-up!

Soil, rather than air temperature, has the greatest impact on plant growth, so as the days begin to cool down, it’s important to warm up the beds before sowing or planting into them. Wet soils won’t warm easily, but in my garden, I have a head-start on heat with built-up beds that drain quickly. In autumn, I also weed the beds and rake back any mulch to allow the sun to penetrate the soil. Then, I harvest heat by laying plastic over the soil. Black plastic or clear plastic – either will do – but I make sure it’s held down at the edges with bricks and long boards. This stops the plastic flapping up, and prevents the heat escaping. After a week or so of this treatment (in fine weather), the soil is ready to receive seeds or seedlings. When they’re in place, I pop a cloche over the top to maintain the soil’s warmth.

Seasonal sustenance

There’s nothing more satisfying than preserving summer produce, and over the years, I’ve done a lot of just that. More recently, however, I’ve decided that it’s more sustainable (and in some cases, more healthy) to eat seasonally instead. Eating seasonally avoids using valuable time and electricity, to freeze, bottle, or dehydrate. It also does away with the need for sugar and vinegar. To eat seasonally, I focus on growing cold-hardy greens throughout winter and early spring. I rely on root crops in the ground, as well as those that I have dug and stored in autumn. I draw on naturally cured and dried edibles such as pumpkins, kumi kumi, nuts, peas, beans, and grains, and I get my sweetness from winter berries (such as ugni), carefully stored heritage apples, honey, and sweet pumpkin. I save my active preserving for a few jars of chutney and some bottled non-keeper apples. Preserving can be fun, but it’s not always necessary.

Pop in a perennial

With the exception of non-deciduous trees and bushes, now is the time to establish or enlarge your orchard, nuttery, and berry garden. Always select varieties that suit your region and look for heritage trees (they are fuss-free and produce reliably). Ask for organically-grown, bare-rooted trees and bushes. These are young plants that are dug fresh from the ground, and as long as you get them into their planting hole as quickly as possible, they transplant more reliably than those grown in containers. Always plant into well-drained soil, and mulch to keep down grass and weeds.

Fight for your fodder!

Fresh store-bought vegetables are becoming a luxury. If you want to reduce your food bill and keep healthy, growing through winter is essential. The most important aspect of late autumn and early winter gardening is to care for what you already have. This means weekly feeding of low-nitrogen liquid manure while there’s still warmth in the soil to promote growth (high nitrogen feeds will only encourage tender new growth which is vulnerable to frost). Brew your own liquid manure by soaking compost, kelp, comfrey leaves, nettles, and just a scattering of aged animal manure in a barrel of water. I let mine steep for a couple of weeks before straining it off and watering it around the base of leafy greens such as celery, silverbeet, spinach, rocket, winter lettuce, and brassica. I also check at night, with a torch, for pests that want my greens as much as I do. Slugs and sails are picked off and removed. Scrunched balls of paper popped in among foliage attracts earwigs which can be shaken out, in the morning, well away from the garden. Aphids get the squish!

Emergency gardening

Losing your garden to natural disaster is beyond disheartening, yet this is what has happened to so many growers in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle and other recent weather events. Even worse, in many cases, the soil that remains is contaminated and unusable. In the short-term, built-up beds, lined with black plastic and filled with fresh, uncontaminated, organic soil may help, but until that’s possible, there are other ways to lift the spirits with homegrown produce. Sow a selection of fast-growing organic seed (such as kale, rocket, pea sprouts, and autumn mesclun mix) into clean, shallow containers of fresh, commercial, organic potting mix. Snip and enjoy the greens when 5 to 6cm high. Save some of the little plants from the scissors, and transplant them into clean, individual pots of uncontaminated soil to grow on in a sheltered spot or under a cloche. Sprout your own mung beans, lentils, and pea sprouts. Leave clean onions and garlic to sprout on a sunny window ledge, and snip the green tops into salads. If you live in a warmer region, consider container growing, in uncontaminated soil, shallow, fast-maturing root crops such as Parisian carrot and a range of stump-rooted radish.

Sow me now 

In warm regions only: Carrot, beetroot, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale. 

In all but the coldest regions: 
Flowers: Flowers alyssum, dianthus, lobelia, sweet William sweet peas, marigolds, Canterbury bells, delphinium, gypsophilla, marigold, wall flower, stock.   

Herbs: chives, coriander, garlic, parsley, oregano, rocket. 

Veges: Asian greens, broad beans, corn salad, Florence fennel, kohlrabi, mizuna, mibuna, onions, peas, pea sprouts, snow peas, spinach, winter lettuce. 

In very cold regions, undercover: Broad beans, pea sprouts. 

Transplant me now 

In all but the coldest regions: 

Flowers: pansies, polyanthus, primulas, violas, ornamental kale. 

Herbs: garlic, perennial rocket. 

Veges: cabbage, cauliflowers, celery, broad beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, garlic, leeks, onions, spinach, winter lettuce.    

Diana Noonan lives in the Catlins where she grows 70 percent of her food using a variety of methods including permaculture food forest to French intensive. 

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