Autumn is that season when we may have the last of our summer vegetables still ripening while the nuts are starting to fall, but, as the days shorten and cool, the first of the new season’s leaves are emerging too. It is a glorious season for the home gardener and one I think a lot of people let slip by, unappreciated.
Life is like a skein of wool; keep it whole and you remain cosy and protected. The more you unravel it, the more you have to deal with the consequences but also the more opportunities it reveals. And so it is with the food garden in autumn!
I find the hurly burly of the spring garden stressful. I never seem to get ahead. Christmas looms, in a flash the grass is as high as an elephant's eye and seeds need to be constantly sown and seedlings tended to ensure a long summer vegetable harvest.
As I stand with the hose this dry autumn day, I am relaxed. Dew makes everything look fresh, flashes of red of the last of the tiny, wild strawberries and regular ones too are dotted about, enticing the gardener to wander further, nibbling here and there as I water. Fully ripe, the deep red, delicious, Chilean guava fruits are so abundant that I put the hose down in order to gorge on them before moving on.
I am careful not to stand on any self-sown chicory plants which colour the paths with their brilliant greens, reds and various markings, all of which are being constantly and gently harvested to add to my salads. Soon, their bitterness will recede with the cold of winter and larger leaves can be picked. Chicories are the beauty queens of the winter garden in Europe but are vastly under-valued here, despite my almost daily exclamations of delight to whoever will listen! I especially love the French “endive” (also called witlof by the English, but which is far superior in France than anywhere else), and the French “chicoree frise” which wear vast bonnets in the fields of France and emerges sweet and crisp but which I love, even without its blanched leaves, if picked young from your own garden.
While I wait for the very last of my bean pods to crisp up, brassicas such as broccoli, purple sprouting broccoli and red cabbages are growing in pots in my greenhouse, ready for transplanting to the resulting nitrogen rich bed. I am not watering these old bean plants now, so I turn the nozzle off and fossick through the dilapidated mass, searching for brown, crisp, dry pods, plump and ripe with dried beans inside. Leaving them to hang there too long results in insects burrowing in and having a feast. I put the half dozen pods in my pocket to add to my inside stash later and pick up the hose again.
Next is my winter greens bed, planted out a few weeks ago and looking fabulous, despite the encroaching shade from the lower angle of the sun and the frosty hollow that it occupies. Winter leaves are thoroughly adaptable to shade, frost and even snow, bouncing back up and throwing off the weight of ice in the hardest and coldest winter weather. The trick is to get them well advanced before mid-May when the short day length, the soft light and cold nights reduce their capacity to grow without big solar panels to capture every second of good light to make growth, not just survive.
This bed was well prepared with compost and deep hay. Consequently, it needs very little watering and I have started picking a few leaves from the lettuce, mizuna and wasabi greens already. I pick and nibble and leave the hose for now. The tomatoes also have needed very little water, with this deep hay method, despite it being warm and terribly dry for months. I have never had so many huge, luscious, delicious tomatoes and the plants are still deep green and healthy in mid-April which is incredible.
I water an unmulched area of kale and coriander and celtuce. Why did I not include this patch in my deep hay experiment? Goodness, I don’t know and now wish I had! It is much easier to plant into a mulched garden than to mulch it later. Oh well, I water it well and move on….
I find it is important to be constantly planting parsley or risk the cook’s nightmare of running out in winter, when it is too late to sow more! This seems to be an excellent year for parsley as not only have I planted consecutive crops but also it has self sown in thick patches which are growing dark green and fabulously; much better than those I planted.
Just about back where I started, I water the walking onions a friend gave me recently, which have now shot out wonderfully and look strong enough to get to a good size before mid May. Lots of fennel are coming up around the edges of the deep hay so I water them too. The Tasmanian purple garlic are in and should emerge soon but I won’t water them until they do.
Walking past the main herb garden I stop to nibble on the flowers of the garlic chives and put some in my pocket too, to add to my salad for lunch. They are crunchy and sweet and very garlicky; almost enough to make my eyes water! While I water them, even though they don’t ask for it, I notice the red-ribbed dock is again coming up from its summer hibernation. In a frosty, winter garden it shines like a beacon to me when I am at the kitchen sink. Even if I never ate it, I would still love it.
Out near the front door, the quince is laden with enticing, big, yellow globes, attracting attention from every visitor, to some of whom I give one or two…. if they are drooling! Many artichokes and cardoons are now shooting and growing like the wind. Also by the front door are my saffron bulbs which are in full production of the earthy saffron filaments I adore. Last night I put my own fresh saffron into my tagine dinner. How exciting, even though I only had 9 threads. I did add a pinch of bought saffron but I am sure mine tasted better :-)
There is much more, like the Cape Gooseberry jungle in my greenhouse, with fruits that have not stopped for nearly 2 years, the new goji berry by the fence, the limes ripening on the front verandah, the lemon which I am protecting this winter with a courtyard of hay bales around it, the sweet potato experiment and the tamarillo about to burst out through the top of the greenhouse and I am not sure what to do about it…… and so on and so on.
As I sit here in the dawn at my computer, with the imaginary hose in my hand, it is such a joy to wander vicariously through my garden, unravelling the skein of garden food, friends who have given me plants and life’s images from where I first had vegetable experiences in far off countries. Life is short; get there fast then take it slow. I am there and really enjoying the slow life of autumn in the food garden.