There is a wistful softness about golden October, a period that can produce some of our most congenial weather in which to enjoy the less urgent jobs of autumn such as lawn raking! Highly meditative if you allow yourself to be lost in its tranquil rhythm, or perhaps even better, picking apples and pears. So relax and enjoy the gardens final fling.
Nature abhors a vacuum and in the veggie garden we ensure she is kept happy by filling any gap in our crop rotation with a green manure. These are crops such as Grazing Rye, Tares or Buckwheat that have the capacity to produce a large amount of ground-covering soft green growth that suppresses weeds whilst growing and that can be dug in when the space is needed for anther crop. This has the added benefit of increasing soil fertility, building up humus and improving soil structure, what a winner!
Rainbow Chard should feature on any vegetable plot and is looking particularly colourful now. It’s incredibly decorative thick, glossy leaves are offset by the pink, rose, yellow, orange red and white mid ribs and stems. These are best cooked separately as they cook at different speeds. The whole plant is also gratifyingly big and bouncy as well as robust. Its only bad habit is a tendency to “bolt”, a propensity particularly pronounced in the red forms. The answer to this is not to “check” it in its early stages by keeping it well watered.
Bulbs in pots are a sure fire winner for the patio or cool glasshouse bench and now is the time to be planting them. Favourites with us are tulips, hyacinths and lilies. We plant them into pots filled with a mix of John Innes and All Purpose compost and topped off with a layer of grit on the soil surface. They are then put somewhere cool and dark until the first leaf tips disturb the surface. At this point they are staked, if necessary, and then put into a cold frame to grow on before going into the display house as the flowers open.
One of the subtle but special pleasures of this period is the flowering of Cyclamen hederifolium. This is followed by the emergence of its leaves which, in the best cases, are almost as showy as the flowers. This is a tough, no nonsense corm that has the added benefit of self-seeding generously and naturalising well in thin grass under the high canopy of trees. To help it in its spread we have been growing on hundreds of seedlings in plug trays for a couple of years and then colonising new areas with them. In a few years these should look stunning
Now is a perfect time to spruce up your lawn, particularly after a hot, dry summer like the one we have just had. Any areas that are severely compacted and looking thin should be aerated using a hollow tined fork. If you don’t have such a thing an ordinary garden fork is better than nothing. Then the whole area should be given a thorough scarification to remove the layer of “thatch”, that is the undecomposed organic matter that builds up in a lawn over a season.
If you have a large area you may want to hire a machine in but for a small lawn a spring tine rake does a perfectly good job and also offers the opportunity for some useful aerobic exercise. Then you can over-sow with a seed mix appropriate to your lawn and finally finish it off by topdressing and working that in using the back of a rake.
If you haven’t already done so now is the time to remove the fruited canes of raspberries, blackberries and hybrid berries and to tie in the new crop of canes that will bear next year’s crop. If you omit to do this you soon end up with an impenetrable thicket that is impossible to work with. And remember to remove the old canes right to the ground and not leave a vegetative stubble which is both unsightly and uncomfortable!
The gardens are still looking good and nothing is lovelier on a brisk autumn day than a two mile stroll through the Park to St Roche’s Arboretum, the best kept secret about West Dean Gardens, give it a try and then enjoy a well-earned cream tea in the cafe.