The Autumn Garden
Our relationship with the garden is a dance, for this is an ecosystem with which we need to get the beat if we are to interact gracefully and productively. Gabrielle Roth’s ‘Five Rhythms’ dance movement archetypes can almost be thought of as metaphors for the way our activities change throughout the growing year. Early spring is the ‘Flowing’ season of fresh growth when the soil starts to warm up and become workable and first green shoots emerge. ‘Staccato’ reflects the activities of late spring and early summer when we need to keep on it, with little time to pause as we try and keep up with planting and controlling the wild plants that seem to spring up all over the place, then it’s the ‘Chaos’ of midsummer when things really get busy. Late summer and autumn is the time of more ‘Lyrical’ rhythms, we can begin to relax as the leaves turn red and gold and harvests become ready for picking. Finally it’s the ‘Stillness’ of winter, when the earth rests and retreats within itself before the cycle of life begins once again.
Right now we are in the slowing down and reflective stage of the dance, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. The harvest has been gathered, the pumpkins carved into grinning Halloween masks and their flesh made into rich and warming soup, and the apples have been picked and stored or pressed into juice and cider. Now it is time to slow down, ready for the quiet of winter…
Yet there are still a few activities to keep us busy before it is quite time to snuggle up by the fire with next year’s seed catalogues…
Making Leaf Mould
The autumn days become shorter as the sun drops lower in the sky, and trees are no longer able to efficiently photosynthesise sunlight into carbohydrates, sugars and biomass. At the same time the temperature begins to drop, increasing the risk of frost damage to leaves. Thus deciduous trees use a process called abscision to shed their leaves and become dormant, saving their energy resources for more active times. Many gardeners consider this annual leaf fall to be a nuisance, expending great amounts of time and energy in sweeping them up and either burning them or taking them to the tip where they end up as landfill. This is wasteful however, a practice that is not only polluting but removes a valuable resource from the fertility cycle. Instead why not simply collect them up and allow them to break down into leaf mould, an excellent free-of-charge soil conditioner. Note that due to the tough lignins in their cell walls autumn leaves decompose very slowly, and so should not be added to other garden compost. Instead pile them up separately in an out of the way corner in black plastic sacks, and after a year or so they will have broken down into a pleasant smelling, dark brown, crumbly substance that is a good soil improver, lawn conditioner and mulch, as well as being useful in seed and potting mixes.
Sowing Green Manures
The autumn of 2016 has been mild so far, and so there is still time to sow ‘Green Manures’ such as grazing rye, tares and winter field beans. These are temporary cover crops that will germinate and provide protection for bare soil over winter, helping to prevent erosion and the leaching of nutrients, as well as fixing nitrogen from the air or accumulating minerals from deep in the subsoil with their root systems. The plant foliage is then chopped down either in spring or before being allowed to flower, and either lightly hoed into the soil or left on the surface as a rough mulch, whilst the roots are left in the soil to break down and improve its structure, building up the populations of soil life and increasing it’s capacity to store carbon.
Crops for Autumn
Unless you have access to a greenhouse there aren’t too many edible annual crops that can be sown at this time of year, although those hardier souls that can be planted directly outside include broad beans, overwintering onions and garlic.
Growing broad beans over the winter months gives them a head start against blackfly, a type of aphid. Their attacks tend to be more severe against more tender spring sown varieties that havn’t had a chance to toughen up. Broad beans have large brown seeds that look a bit like small ears – Traditionally these are sown an inch or two deep about five inches apart in rows with about 18 inches between them. Some of the books say they need to be grown up canes in the same way as runner beans, but I’ve not found this to be the case as they are usually sturdy enough to be self-supporting. I’ve also been experimenting with abandoning the row system of growing, and instead scatter them randomly on ground that has been lightly cultivated to loosen it and remove competing weeds, then push them an inch or so under the soil where they land. My not very scientific observation against a ‘control’ plot of beans sown in the more traditional way would seem to suggest that they do better, and that there are less losses to hard frosts and mice who sometimes like to steal the seeds, but more rigorous research is probably needed… Over wintering varieties include Bunyards Exhibition, Aquadulce Claudia and Super Aquadulce.
Some varieties of onion such as Senshyu, Radar (whites) or Electric (red) can be planted as ‘sets’ (tiny onion bulbs that have already been grown from seed by the nursery) in autumn to overwinter, the main advantage being that they are ready to harvest around a month before the main spring-sown onion crop. However overwintering onions can be liable to bolt, which means that they produce a flower and run to seed. Bolted onions are still usable, although the eating quality is impaired. Overwintering onions also do not tend to keep as well as those sown in sping, and so should be used straight away rather than used for storing. Plant onion sets by gently pushing them into loose soil with your fingers so that they are just covered below the surface. They should be spaced about 6 inches apart, with 12 inches between rows. Garlic are also members of the alium family, and can be grown in the same way. The easiest way of obtaining garlic for planting is to buy good quality bulbs from the greengrocer and break these into cloves (usually 8 to 10 per bulb), each of which can be planted to yield a whole new bulb the following summer.
Bare rooted fruit trees and bushes can also be planted in late autumn, provided they are fully dormant, although avoid planting into ground that is frozen or waterlogged.
Graham Burnett is a permaculture activist and teacher, and the author of ‘Permaculture A Beginners Guide’ and ‘The Vegan Book of Permaculture’. He will be running a number of courses in 2017, for more information see www.spiralseed.co.uk
Graham Burnett www.spiralseed.co.uk