One of the most common questions we get asked at this time of year is ‘what do you do in the winter?’ The seasoned gardeners amongst you will chuckle at this question because really winter is when the hard work begins in the garden. For the next month or so all our efforts will go into stripping out most of our plants and putting the garden to bed before the serious business of cultivation begins. Our borders and cut flower beds have turned a buff brown colour as the plants have exhausted themselves from the exertions of the summer months. Trailer after trailer of dead plant material will be taken out of the garden and piled onto steaming compost heaps ready to break down and form the ‘black gold’ that will feed the soil and nourish our garden next season.
We always take the opportunity in October to gather the last few flower stems and hang them up for drying. If you choose the right varieties you can have colourful flowers to brighten up your home (or potting shed) right through the winter. Roses, larkspur, sea holly, lavender and cornflower are all suitable flowers for drying but seed heads and thistles such as nigella, poppies and teasels can look great too. All you have to do cut them just as the flowers are opening and hang them in a cool well-ventilated place away from direct sunlight such as a garage or garden shed. Dried flowers can make fantastic and long-lasting autumnal wreaths, we like to add rose hips, crab apples and even chillies.
As the weather cools and the grass stops growing, our landscape gardeners, Davie and Mark, return to the arduous task of building the garden. Putting their skills to good use laying bricks, building paths, installing posts and rails for our fruit trees and making plant supports. Early on in the project we made the decision not to use contractors for the construction of the garden, we build everything ourselves, even down to the benches and planters. It’s a slow process, we’ve been going for over four years now and there’s at least another years’ work to do, but it means we know every inch of the garden and we can set very high standards. When they’ve finished Davie and Mark will have laid over 48,000 bricks and 2.4km of paths!
With Halloween approaching our crop of Pumpkins has started to appear as their foliage dies down, and its been the best crop we’ve ever had. We grow 11 different varieties from the tiny ‘Jack B Little’ through to the enormous ‘Atlantic Giant’, they make great soups and curries, not to mention pumpkin pie! We start to harvest the first of the winter vegetables during October, its been a great year for leeks and as soon as we’ve had a frost or two we’ll dig a few parsnips and cut a few sprouts. Its all about rationing for the next few months, we’ll not see any new shoots in the garden until next march when the purple sprouting broccoli comes back to life, so we have to pace ourselves if we’re to keep the café in fresh veg through the winter.
Now is the time to dig the last of the tatties. Choose a dry sunny day if you can, lift the tubers and leave them on the ground to dry and the skins to set for a day or so before packing them into paper bags and storing them somewhere cool and dark. Take your time to lift every tuber, being careful not to leave them any in the ground, the last thing you want it a potato plant pushing its way up through a neat row of carrots next season! Potatoes should last for months if stored properly and checked regularly and the longer they’re stored, the sweeter they become as their starches turn to sugars through the winter.
The first skeins of geese have stared to grace the skies over the garden, for me this is a sure sign that autumn it truly upon us. Our apricot trees have turned a beautiful buttery yellow, the beech trees surrounding the lake to the west of the walled garden will soon be a riot of gold and burnt orange and we’re hoping our cherry orchard will add a flash of red and scarlet to the show. Autumn is a great opportunity to take a well-deserved break from the cycle of sowing, weeding and harvesting, so get out into the garden and enjoy the crisp clear mornings before the light goes and the hard graft of the winter begins!