It’s difficult trying to find enthusiasm for growing crops at this time of year. The weather is on the turn, the air is damp and many of our plants are dropping leaves and making the garden look a right, sorry state. And although it may not seem so at first glance, this is in fact a magical time of year as plants prepare themselves for winter in readiness for the following spring. There is a lesson to be learned here because if you wait until the spring to start planting you will be wasting valuable time. Anything that you can be put into the ground this side of winter will have time to establish their roots system, build up more reserves and grow away far quicker and stronger than you would achieve by planting later on in the spring.
When it comes to autumn planting of fruit and vegetables your best choices would be onions, shallots, rhubarb, asparagus, raspberries and garlic. The soil is still warm, and it’s a good excuse to get back out into the garden to keep an eye on things.
Although often grown as seed and planted in the spring, you can also plant bare-root or pot grown plants now. Prepare the planting area as early as you can adding plenty of rich compost or farm manure and removing all traces of weeds. If the soil is not well-drained then add some grit or lots more compost.
For each row dig out a trench 10in deep by 1ft wide, then fill the bottom of each trench with a few inches of well-rotted compost then cover with the soil to form a ridge. Place the new asparagus plants 1ft 6in apart, sitting them on top of the ridge – when using bare-root plants have the roots spread out either side. Now cover the roots up to the level of the crown and water them in.
The secret to growing garlic is to plant it in mid October, spring planting is possible in warmer areas, but even then, better sized bulbs will result from an autumn sowing. Dig the soil well to a spade's depth before planting, incorporating as much organic matter as possible to assist with drainage as garlic will rot in water-logged conditions. If you can, dig in some horticultural grit as drainage will be improved even further. A couple of handfuls of bonemeal should also be incorporated every square yard. Garlic bulbs will not require much nitrogen and so should not be grown on freshly manured soil. If you still intend to use manure then dig it into the ground several months before planting. If the soil is acid it's worth liming it so its pH level becomes neutral or even slightly alkaline.
Onions prefer a sunny position with a rich, yet light soil; however they will be fine in most soils as long as it is firm. For this reason it is best to prepare the soil well in advance of planting – up until December will be fine for most maincrop onions. Dig the soil to 18in deep, working in any organic matter available, but remove any stones in the soil that you come across. As with garlic, onions do not require much nitrogen and so should not be grown on freshly manured soil. If you still intend to use manure then dig it into the ground several months before planting.
And again, if the soil is acid it's worth liming it so its pH level becomes neutral or even slightly alkaline. Just before planting, tread the soil down so that it is firm. For more information click onto How to Grow Onions from Onion Sets.
Shallots are popular for their distinctive flavour, and are easy to grow. They can be planted in the autumn or spring, but the best flavour and yields come from over-wintering shallots planted in late autumn for harvesting the following August.
Grow shallots from shallot sets - baby shallot bulbs - planted 6 inches apart in rows 9 inches apart with the roots downwards and the tops just below the soil. A shallot bulb can be divided into cloves and in this way they are similar to garlic, but with shallots the whole bulb should be planted. As long as the bed is kept relatively free of weeds and is watered during prolonged dry spells, the shallots will grow well.
When the leaves turn yellow, lift the shallots and allow them to dry in the sun for a couple of weeks, after which they can be stored in a cool, dry, frost-free place.
This popular berrying fruit is best grown from bare-root plants in the autumn October is the preferred month to plant them this can be done any time up to March if the weather and soil conditions are suitable.
Most soils are suitable for raspberries, but a little preparation will pay rewards, especially because they will remain in the same position for 10 to 12 years. Start your site off by removing weeds and digging in plenty of well-rotted manure a few weeks before planting.
When you are ready, dig a row 1ft deep by 3ft wide, working more well-rotted. The planting depth is important with raspberries and as a rule of thumb, aim for the old soil mark on the stem to be at the same level as the ground after planting. Where more than one row is being planted, allow 5ft between rows in order to let the roots spread freely and give room for you to harvest the crop in summer.
Rhubarb plants are available all year round at some garden centres, although by far the best time to plant rhubarb is late autumn to early winter. If you can, buy one-year-old plants, known as 'crowns', that have been divided from strong, disease-free plants.
They are tolerant of most soil conditions, and will grow best in a neutral soil which has been dug to a depth of 2ft or more. Incorporate as much organic matter as possible during the digging because it must last the life of the plant - rhubarb plants do not cope well with their roots being disturbed once they have established. If you can, the site should be prepared a month or so in advance of planting in order to give it time to settle.
Dig a hole a little bit wider than the plant. The depth should be such that the top of the plant is 1 inch below the soil surface. Fill in around the plant with soil, gently firming it down to ensure that no air pockets remain. Water well if the conditions are dry and after the leaves have died down, spread a rich mulch around the plants to help conserve water and suppress weeds. Do not mulch directly over where the crown is likely to emerge.
Remember to dead-head any flower clusters immediately after they appear in the early spring, as allowing them to set seed will weaken the plant, reducing your crop.