Engine room – the root department:
No one ever regrets looking after their roots, particularly if you are about 40 shades of grey like me. Over the hottest months, the soil has been working overtime to support and grow crops. The hot temperatures, masses of plants and watering all leech valuable soil nutrients, which need to be replaced before the next lot of crops can go in. In hot soils, worms tend to disappear, too.
So, now, in the lull between seasons, it is important to replenish the soil with loads of compost, like a couple of inches of it – 5-10cm if you can. Sheep pellets or well-rotted manure are good food sources, too. Yes, you can bang in a few more seedlings into the existing soil and, more than likely, they will grow, but it is unlikely they will flourish (therefore, is it worth the effort?) and they will have less resistance to fight off the attack of bugs and diseases if they are not healthy and energised by rich, fertile soil.
Beetroot can’t be beaten as a good all-rounder crop. Sow seed now in finely worked soil or into tubs and planters. The globe varieties are best for tubs. Seedlings are available, although you only tend to get a handful of plants, making seed far better value. It only takes a week or two to germinate, plus, if you have too many seedlings, they are a tasty microgreen and transplant readily.
Kale is a super hero when it comes to nutritional value and ease of growth. A dozen kale plants will produce enough green matter for a family, for a couple of months. Mix it up by planting the blue-green forms along with the red and pink-stemmed varieties. The tuscan kale, cavolo nero, is tall and robust and, when harvested regularly, will continue to crop for up to a year. The plants are highly ornamental, too, so they look quite at home on the deck or apartment terrace. Broccoli – a family and firm favourite with many, every part of the plant can be eaten from the head to stem, leaves and roots. In smaller plots, you can look at planting the varieties like ‘Green Midget’ or ‘Mighty Mini’, however, the good standard varieties are better value as it is just the head that is smaller; the plant size is the same. Purple sprouting broccoli is a cool branching variety that crops for months. two broccoli plants will easily grow in a 10-litre kitchen bucket. Fill with vegetable mix, make sure the bucket has holes in it and watch the broccoli grow. The leaves are wonderful fried into crisps, or chips, as they say on MasterChef.
Chinese cabbage: if stir-fries and curries are your thing, then you need to get into the Chinese-cabbage revolution. These super-speedy cabbages are ready to pick within a couple of months, have a sweet taste and all the leaves are edible. Seed is readily available and germinates in 10 days or so. Seedlings appear in mixed punnets of Asian greens and are perfect for pots and tubs. Plant plenty as they are so, so good.
Leeks: probably the easiest of all the onion family to grow, leeks are very hardy and durable through the colder months. It is a little late to sow seed and expect anything to harvest over autumn and winter, so look to seedlings. Newspaper bundles are the best way to go, as they are generally finger-sized plants in width. Punnets are everywhere, too, but do remember these little, delicate seedlings need extra care when handling and transplanting. Baby leeks are wonderful chargrilled or sautéed in butter.
Celery: this cool customer comes into its own over the cooler months. In summer, it can resent the heat as it prefers the cooler evenings to flourish. Celery is a good option for containers and tubs, but it does demand good rich soil, so no skimping on replenishing the soil with this crop. To get the juicy, sweet stems, the soil needs to be moisture-retentive and fertile. Allow 20-30cm between each plant for plenty of air movement. This also allows you to harvest a few sneaky outer stems as the plants are developing.
Coriander, chervil, dill and parsley – soft herbs. Put another batch of each of these in. Autumn and winter meals all benefit from the extra flavour herbs bring. After a long, hot summer, softer herbs often come to an end, so get new plants going now to keep up the continuous supply. It is too late for basil as it is temperamental and hates cooler temperatures.
Courgette/zucchini: you still have time to get another plant or two growing. In the warmer regions, these will continue to crop right through. For those further south, plants planted out now will be producing a crop in six weeks’ time. This is a great crop to replace tomatoes in the greenhouse over winter, as they cope with light frosts and lower light levels. In a tub or bucket, plant one per 10 litres of soil, and move it close to a wall or the house once temperatures drop. You will be surprised at how long they crop.
1. Kale offers plenty of cool colours – green, pink, steely grey and pale blue. Harvest leaf by leaf to extend the cropping time.
2. Purple sprouting broccoli and other varieties should be added now. Plump heads will develop in two to three months.
3. With a number of warmer months still ahead of us, get a new batch of soft herbs going. Coriander, chervil, dill and parsley can all be planted.
4. These super-sweet Chinese cabbages are quickly become favoured by many because they are so quick to grow and don’t take up as much room as their chunky cousins.