I must admit I'm finding it a little difficult to write my usual enthusiastic post today as my garden isn't quite the paradise it normally is at this time of year. I don't know where you are but here in the North West of Ireland we never really got past mid Spring, it has been exceptionally cool and wet with very little of the warmth a Summer garden needs. I know many of you in England have had the opposite problem and may have been struggling to keep moisture loving plants like cabbage or broccoli irrigated but this brings me neatly (and more quickly than even I would have thought) to a positive: There is always something you can grow.
Yes, this year my tomatoes are struggling to ripen and my outdoor French beans wish they were in France but my cabbages and calabrese are great as is my celery and beetroot which are very happy with the damp conditions. It is interesting that I expect to be able to grow a very broad range of crops in a single climate zone when many of the plants I choose originate from a part of the world with very different conditions. Cool climate leafy greens will always do well in my garden but plants that would prefer to be further South will always be a bit of a lottery, you may need to plan a little more carefully.
For example, I very rarely sow French beans outside as they hate cold weather but I always get a good crop from those sown in the polytunnel no matter what the weather outside is like. If you are growing French beans in a tunnel I would recommend dwarf varieties as they won't shade crops which need plenty of Sunlight. You will be surprised how much you pick from the unobtrusive little plants, I find you end up with far too many beans from the climbing varieties anyway. I grow two every year; 'Purple Teepee' and 'Safari', they never disappoint.
Cherry tomatoes are quicker to ripen than their larger cousins so I tend to grow two thirds cherry tomatoes and a third full size varieties in case we get a poor Summer; 'Sungold' is one of the earliest to ripen so particularly useful for this. Everyone in my house prefers the naturally sweeter flavour of the cherries anyway. My favourite varieties are 'Sungold', 'Rosada' and 'Sweet Aperitif'. 'Sungold' will be first to ripen, you need to keep an eye on them as the fruit drops off the vine as soon as they are ready, 'Rosada' is much better for holding on to the fruit.
As I've said there are many crops in the garden that are doing superbly well because they are ideally suited to the weather conditions. Celery is originally a wetland plant and will get stringy and bitter if let dry out so while you stare out of a rain streaked window and wish you'd booked that holiday you can console yourself with the fact that your celery will be delicious.
You may be thinking you have no interest in what's going on in my garden (neither do I sometimes if I'm honest) and would rather know what you can do in your own garden right now. Well, here we go:
What you can sow or plant outside? Despite what many sellers would have you believe there is really no such thing a over wintering vegetables (unless you have a polytunnel). Plants need warmth and light to grow, once the temperature and light levels drop in mid November nothing much happens until things warm up again in Spring. If you think about it the weeds in your garden are the best suited plants to your local climate and the most vigourous growers and even they throw in the towel when it gets too cold.
Oriental Vegetables When we talk about late Summer sowing we a really talking about fast growing crops which will mature before Winter. Oriental vegetables fit this bracket well as not only are they quick growing they are also generally cold tolerant and can even withstand a degree of frost giving the the longest possible season for Autumn growing. Many of the Oriental leaves are exceptionally tasty and can only be grown in Autumn as they are sensitive to the number of daylight hours and will run to seed in longer Summer days.
This week I will be sowing a broad range of oriental salad leaves including various rocket varieties, spicy leaf mustards and more mild flavoured Mizuna greens. My favourite for flavour are the mustard leaves 'Green Frills' and 'Red Frills' which I always make visitors try; they are mild enough at first (the leaves, not the visitors) but then surprise with a very flavoursome and spicy kick at the end.
If you want to completely blow your head off try the very hardy 'Green in the Snow' and let it mature to produce large leaves which pack one hell of a punch!
Oriental Winter Radishes I tried these guys for the first time last year and though I had left it a bit late to sow I got a good crop from them. I'll sow some this weekend both outdoors and in the tunnel.
Oriental radishes are much larger than their European cousins but are similarly fast growing. There are a variety of shapes like the white 'icicle' Daikon or the long pink 'China Rose' but also round (and exceptionally pretty) varieties like 'Watermelon' (pictured) with a white exterior and incredible bright magenta flesh.
I find the larger radishes were delicious added to a Winter roast where they supplied a pleasant sweetness. I loved the Watermelon cut in thin slices in a salad but this year I will also try pickling them as they will look so great in the jar.
Fast Growing Turnips Personally I'm not crazy about cooked turnips and neither is my wife so while I always grow them I am ashamed to say they often go to waste. 'Tokyo Cross' is a smooth white super fast turnip perfect for sowing now as they are ready in 4-6 weeks. I found they are best eaten small and sliced raw with a little of salt but this year I am determined improve my culinary turnip repertoire as they are such a reliable and easy to grow crop.
What you can sow or plant in the polytunnel? A polytunnel means you have a much longer season with a quick start in Spring, a late Autumn and even enables some crops to struggle on through the Winter.
I mention some of things I'm sowing now below but with the exception of carrots I mean sowing in modular trays for planting in late September. The polytunnel tends to be nearly full at this time of year so it is unlikely you will find much space. If you do have room you can sow direct. Of course you can also include anything from the outdoor list above.
I absolutely love homegrown carrots as their flavour in completely different to shop bought varieties, they always surprise me at just how good they taste.
I have plenty growing outdoors but I like to sow more in the tunnel now as they will produce decent size baby carrots before it gets too cold and will overwinter if left in the ground. The other advantage is carrots grown outdoors will likely suffer from carrot root fly damage if left late in the ground while the ones sown indoors should be ok.
Remember carrots need a very fine seed bed with a light stone free soil for best results. If the soil in your tunnel is on the heavy side dig to a spades depth (about a foot) and sift out any stones. I thoroughly mix in some well rotted compost too but never add manure or anything else high in nitrogen as the carrots will fork or grow a lot of leaf at the expense of decent sized roots.
Baby carrots are also very well suited to growing in pots in the tunnel due to the fine nature of potting compost, this is well worth a go and especially fun for children. Use an ordinary multipurpose compost and an early variety like 'Early Nantes'.
Annual Spinach Annual spinach can be sown either in modules or direct as late as mid september. Less productive than annual spinach but a more delicate leaf with more subtle flavour. I find it overwinters in the tunnel well and is particularly delicious in the Spring.
Swiss Chard and Perpetual Spinach Chard and Perpetual Spinach are great because they keep on producing new leaves as you pick them and will produce an amazing amount of crop from a single plant. Best picked when the leaves are young and small as they contain less oxylic acid which gives the bitter taste in the back of the throat.
Broccoli - Calabrese Calabrese is the big broad head of broccoli you see in the shops. As broccoli goes it is quite quick growing which is why I put it in now as it is ready about 80 days after sowing. I find 'Green Magic' the best.
Make sure the soil is very well fed as it's a hungry plant and stick to the recommended spacing of 30cm between plants and 60cm between rows. I add well rotted manure and a little Envirogrind, it you can't get your hands on manure our 'SeaFeed' seaweed and manure pellets are an ideal substitute.
Lettuce You can sow lettuce in the tunnel until the end of August for a good crop of Autumn leaves. Plants will struggle when it gets very cold but may survive of the season is relatively mild, I would recommend using Oriental salads for later crops as they are much better suited to colder temperatures.
There are a broad range of lettuce varieties you can sow now. I find it difficult to beat 'Little Gem' for crunch and flavour while 'Batavia' and 'Catalonga Cerbiatta' provide a tasty and pretty leaf. If you want a mixture of varieties you could try our ever popular 'Surprise Mix'.