Preparing for winter

Although there are always plenty of crucial jobs to be done at almost any time of the year at this season some become more urgent because of the imminence of hard frosts. If we leave these important winter preparations undone a tad too long all can be lost. And because it is some years since most of the UK had a long hard winter these tasks may be easy to overlook until it is too late.

Picking the fruits. Autumn is the time of harvest and although much should already be gathered in it is better to leave the late keeping varieties of apples and pears hanging on for as long as possible. If a hard frost threatens then they must be gathered but otherwise they are better kept on the tree. Once picked the apples should be allowed to sweat out excess moisture for a few days in their trays before being shut up in their store. The pears must be kept warmer and checked regularly as they ripen and go over so fast. As I have said many times I find a dead deep freezer or refrigerator makes an excellent rodent proof constant temperature store. I lay the best apples on shredded newspaper in trays and pack the bulk of others in it in buckets. In a dead deep freezer apples can keep for up to eight months as fresh as when picked. Of course you may also squeeze and ferment most fruits and especially grapes for wine but I prefer juicing fruits and drinking the fresh juice. Alternatively fruit juice can be frozen and then drunk later throughout the year. This is very economical on freezer space and well worth doing.

Bringing in the tender. Few of us are likely to forget to bring in such expensive items as citrus trees. (However we may forget to put out the pot grown indoor grapevines which need the blast of winter to set them up for next year.) There really ought not be any potatoes still in the ground and all haste must be made to get these up and in store. Also any tomatoes, melons or peppers and so on that have survived in an unheated greenhouse so far need to go to the kitchen and be eaten or processed. Green tomatoes ripen best left on the vine with the whole plant uprooted and hung in a frost free place. Likewise rush to get any seed saved before it is moulded away. I find most such as peas and beans do best left in their haulms and hung up in a dry shed. And if you want to have fresh herbs for months longer then it is sensible to pot some up now and bring them under cover. Apart from the obviously tender ones which really should be indoors already many of the perennial herbs such as rosemary and sage are much more succulent and tasty when grown under cover than when exposed to the harshness of winter. Some such as mint and chives can be induced to grow throughout winter if brought inside. If they can't be moved then covering them with a cloche is almost as good if not better. Likewise it is worth using cloches, or even just plastic sheet to cover salad crops which are not tender as otherwise they will be battered and shredded by the wind and hail and splattered with mud into the bargain.

Protecting roots. Although it may be worth covering some more vulnerable or young root crops with cloches the mature ones are better for being completely dormant in the cold and dark and not kept growing. In very harsh winters you cannot dig roots from the bare soil as it gets frozen solid so it is sensible to dig such as carrots, turnips and beet and store them in a cool place under cover. Again I use dead refrigerators as rodent proof stores just as for apples. With most roots, especially carrots, it helps them keep longer if the tops are removed. This is usually done by twisting them off, rather than cutting, to reduce the bleeding. However I have also found that carrots and turnips can be kept fresher in store for longer still if their whole crown is cut away and the wound dusted with wood ashes before they are stored. Most roots can also be left in the ground if protected from freezing by a thick layer of loose dry straw or shredded newspaper and a plastic sheet. However slugs can then do much damage so it makes sense to put bait such as apple halves on the ground under the straw where they can be easily inspected and dealt with.

Leeks are rarely harmed by hard frosts but again should be dug up or covered so they can be dug later if severe weather is forecast. Parsnips are said to be better after a frost, but if the ground then freezes solid they then may become impossible to dig up before spring; so protect them with a straw and plastic cover once the first few frosts have sweetened them. Likewise I find it suits the Brussel's sprouts to be frosted before eating them, hard weather does not affect kales but cabbages can succumb.

Protecting brassicas. Prime cabbages can be protected against the harshest weather by covering them with a black dustbin bag full of straw or shredded newspaper. However I've found this can encourage slugs to move in so I also take some under cover where yet another dead freezer is used to store the cabbages. I found slugs, even just a couple, could do much harm to my stored cabbages given enough time. As I was otherwise successfully keeping hard white coleslaw cabbage for many months I tried scrupulously cleaning the cabbages of all slugs, but failed. I then tried sprinkling salt on and around the cabbages. This has worked fantastically, not only preventing almost all slug damage but also making the cabbages keep fresher for even longer. Mind you they looked and smelt awful but as soon as you cleaned off the outer layer the insides were just like fresh cut.

Pruning all the fruit needs finishing as soon as possible so the wounds can heal before the coldest weather makes the top growths go dormant. In order of importance I reckon it is essential to get grape vines done first, then apples and pears, then the soft fruits. Stone fruits must be left till next summer to prevent silver leaf disease gaining access. Traditionally gooseberries are left till last to prune; probably as the congested thorny growths then stop the bullfinches stripping all their fruit buds, possibly because they are also least set back by the occasional failure to be pruned at all.

Planting new fruit trees and bushes should also be finished as soon as possible so the roots can settle in while the soil still has some warmth left. Left another month and you risk the roots remaining dormant and rotting off before spring. It is also time to check all the ties and stakes of other trees and wall trained fruit as they may have to stand up to winter gales. And while your'e there clean out the nest boxes ready for next year's broods.

Bonfires are also rather traditional at this time of year. I trust no-one is burning leaves any more -just bung them in a plastic bag and hide them away somewhere; when you get the bags out next year, or the one after, they will have turned into leaf mould which is an excellent additive to potting composts or for almost any vegetable crop's soil. I actually burn very little material any more using most of the twiggy materials as wildlife refuges and thus I only have a little woody, thorny, twiggy and diseased stuff to burn. I store these wastes up all year under a plastic sheet and then make up the bonfire in one go on the day I burn it. This stops too many little critters being sacrificed. I first put down several sheets of corrugated iron to catch the wood ashes and stop the soil being too scorched. On this I build a base of old iron bed frame placed up on steel car wheels which allows air in under the fire. On this firm low base I build the heap with a core of the driest stuff. No painted or treated wood, plastic or other such rubbish is allowed as these could introduce residues. However I do try and find as much woody garden material as possible as the ashes are so valuable. Once built a plastic sheet goes over temporarily to keep off the rain until firing time. Then a simple ball of newspaper set fire to and pushed underneath guarantees a good blaze quickly. Once the fire is out and cold I sieve the ashes for the garden where they are most appreciated by gooseberries, onions, beets and cooking apples. I may even get enough charcoal bits to fire up the bar-b-q once or twice next summer.

Putting away; of course it is time to consign the bar-b-q to the shed till then along with the garden furniture. I doubt we'll need it for the next seven or eight months. It is also important to put away hosepipes as these get easily cracked if moved when frozen and likewise most plastic watering cans and so on become brittle and are better kept under cover. Any pumps, sprayers, containers or bottles with feeds or sprays in them ought to be cleaned out and dried off as these may otherwise be damaged if there is a penetrating frost. (I may be organic but there is still seaweed spray!) It's a good idea to oil tools as they are put away and the same goes for the lawnmower blades as these may also not be used for several months. Once the leaves have finished falling then clean out the gutters on the sheds and greenhouses, and it is also sensible to empty and clean out the water butts ready to capture the winter's rains for next spring.

And if you still have any time left over you could also be planting garlic and autumn planting shallots and be preparing to sow hardy peas and broad beans next month. Phew I feel exhausted just writing it all, time for a winter's break I reckon.