One of the reasons I love gardening is there is always the next season to look forward to. I know a lot of gardeners who agree. It’s not about impatience with the present, but an optimism that life is always moving forward.
On my London allotment in January, even when it appears nothing is growing, there are green shoots of crocus and Iris reticulata as reassuring signs of the next season, poking through the soil in the bed where I’ve mixed late winter and early spring bulbs to brighten up the bare twiggy fruit bushes. In April I count the flowers on the peach, plum and apricot trees and imagine them as fruit to pick in July, even when I know that a late frost means some won’t make it. And now, at the peak of summer in August, it is a daily watch of fattening quinces, apples and pumpkins that will be harvested in October.
There is a definite gear-change on the plot this month: while the harvesting remains relentless, there is less planting and tending as the vegetables hit maturity, allowing more time to contemplate. The heavy rain of the last couple of weeks have left some beds overrun with weeds, but most of the veg is large enough to out-compete them.
A lot of the crops sown in early spring or last autumn have finished – the broad beans came and went in June, followed by the peas in early July. I’ve dug up the garlic and onions, now drying on my table under the grapevine. The courgettes were perfectly small and new on the kitchen table a month ago, but a couple of over-sized marrows taking over the raised bed next to my cider apple tree is a sign I am just about over them. August on my plot is dominated by tomatoes, cucumbers and runner beans, but soon they will be over too.
Nearly all of the berries and currants have finished except blackberries, autumn raspberries and boysenberries. The apples are not quite ready but I’ve been enjoying the first proper crop from a plum tree planted three years ago, called ‘Marjorie’s Seedling’.
The end of these crops doesn’t have to mean the end of the season, of course. There are plenty of veg you can still sow now for autumn and even winter picking. My new allotment neighbours, who inspired me to write this guide to getting a new plot, are feeling downcast because everything they sowed or planted in May died. I assured them that first years on allotments are always about setbacks. So for them and anyone else needing a list of ideas to refresh the patch, here are some late summer veg to sow now:
This and other Chinese greens, such as joi choi, are ideal to sow in late summer because temperatures start to cool when the plants are bulking out, meaning they are less likely to bolt. Sow seeds directly into a bed and water well, keeping an eye out for slugs. Baby leaves will be ready to pick in a month, or full heads in two months. If you’re not in the south of the UK you might need to cover with fleece from early October. Try DT Brown for seeds.
I love the chicory family for its variety and stunning colours on the allotment while everything else fades in autumn. There are three broad groups – witloof, for forcing into white spearheads, the purple-headed radicchio and the frothy endive. Chicories have a more bitter taste than lettuce, but their leaves are thicker, meaning they can take some cooking or blanching.
It’s just about not too late to sow witloof chicory now for forcing through winter, although you would need to get a move on. Sow in an outdoor bed, and once they have grown heads by November, dig them up and cut the leaves down to a one inch high stump, plant in pots indoors and cover them with a black bin bag. The exclusion of light and the relative warmth will encourage bright white chicons to sprout, which should be ready to harvest after four weeks when they are six inches high. Mr Fothergills have witloof seeds, variety ‘Zoom’, that can arrive in seven days.
Radicchio, in the same chicory family, is the type that produces vibrantly maroon and white cabbage-like heads. I am growing Radicchio di Treviso ‘Black Svelta’, which has, as the name suggests, a narrow, upright shape, and is ready to sow now. Sow directly into the soil – module sowing this late in the season will check growth – and protect the plants when frost comes. Order from Franchi Seeds – www.seedsofitaly.com.
The final type of leaf in the chicory family is the endive – which includes escarole and puntarelle. Escarole is basically a flat-leaved endive with an open habit, with thick leaves which taste better for cooking lightly with garlic. Puntarelle is similar but has more upright, jagged leaves. I grew puntarelle for the first time last year and had to double-check it wasn’t a dandelion as they look so similar. Wait until the centre produces thick stems or bulbs, as that is the part used for eating. Protect from frost.
The Italians eat puntarelle with a dressing of crushed garlic, white wine vinegar and anchovies, first soaking the white inner stems with lemon juice in water to reduce some of the bitterness, before chopping up and stirring through the dressing. Franchi Seeds sells puntarelle and a great range of escarole seeds.
It is getting a bit late to sow turnip seeds but if you have a sheltered spot or are in a warmer part of the country, you can give it a try. Sow directly into the soil and protect the emerging seedlings from slugs. If we have a repeat of the Indian Summer we had last autumn, with temperatures pushing 30 degrees well into September, there’s a good chance of getting a decent crop. But even without freakishly warm weather, you can still sow turnip seeds and use the green leaves – known as turnip tops – like spinach.
In any case, I prefer turnips small and sweet before they get too woody. At this size they can be grated into salads or lightly fried with other roots and some garlic. My favourite is ‘Golden Ball’, a sweet yellow variety. You can also try ‘Milan Purple Top’, a flatter purple and white fast-growing type, or ‘Snowball’. Buy seeds from Kings Seeds.
I would normally start off all my brassicas in modules, because sowing directly in the ground risks obliteration by slugs. But now it’s August there isn’t much time to spend raising them under protection and planting out, so I’ll sow direct and cover with netting, lay beer traps for the slugs – who are having a great time in all this rain – and hope for the best. Another six weeks of decent temperatures should allow the cabbages to grow leaves a few inches tall to stand well through winter. No need to protect from frost, and leaves can be harvested from March or hearting heads from April. Try ‘Durham Early’ from Thompson & Morgan.
If you ever have a bare patch of soil and are itching to sow something at any time of year, outside the depths of winter, sow spring onions – as long as onions, leeks or any other alliums weren’t grown there in the previous three years. They take up very little space – meaning you could also grow them in a pot on your doorstep. I sow spring onions in August for an early spring crop, and again in March, when they will grow quickly for cropping in June. DT Brown have an offer on a long-cropping collection of spring onion seeds, including ‘White Lisbon Winter Hardy’, which is perfect for late summer sowing.