Autumn Journal from Gill Meller

Autumn Journal from Gill Meller

I’ve been raking the ash leaves up today. They collect in thick piles around the beds and compost bins and bank up down each side of the greenhouse. For the last month they’ve been drifting down from the precarious limbs of two big ash trees above. Because the veg gardens fenced, the leaves can’t blow away. They’re trapped, so they end up swirling about in the wind. Unlike the leaves on the lawn, which dance off in the gentlest breeze. I don’t actually mind the leaves in the veg garden, they mark a turning point in the gardener’s year, things start to return to the earth. I like the crunch they make too, as I walk round the beds, and I like the tones; a thousand yellows, ochres and browns. I mound the leaves up on the compost heap. They’ll rot down beautifully over time. I’m not sure whether to clear the leaves from the surface of my raised beds, or just let them gently break down into the soil. After all, I’m going to be topping the beds with a generous layer of manure and the first batch of my home made compost very soon, so the leaf mulch should work into that all pretty well. That said, there’s something very satisfying about tickling the rake over the top of the beds to reveal the dark moist compost underneath.

As I write this, I’m trying to remember what happened to summer? It seems like only yesterday I was planting out my little tomatoes in the greenhouse. Now the beds are more or less empty, save a rogue peppery mizuna plant that’s sprung up and the parched frail frame of a cucumber vine, I haven’t got round to pulling up yet. Unfortunately my tomatoes picked up a rather severe case of late blight, which I couldn’t seem to contain. I wonder if I should’ve been more ruthless with them, and really hit the leaves hard, but in the end it got away from me, and at least half my patiently awaited fruit lost its shape and shine to the dark bruising creep of this surprisingly prolific adversary. Happily, as it was late blight, I managed to harvest some early deep red fruit, which we enjoyed simply in big fresh salads with basil, bread, anchovies boiled eggs, red onions and capers and roasted with chicken, garlic and lots of tarragon.

I’ve been looking into the best ways to stave off tomato blight, but I can’t identify one foolproof approach. People say it‘s a case of preparation, intervention and management and keeping your eyes wide open. Next year I’ll give each plant more space, I’ll only ever water the base of the plants, and I’ll keep pinching off those leaves. You can get blight resistant seed, but I’m not sure what the fruit will actually taste like and what varieties I might be able to source. Food for thought.

Just to the right of my greenhouse I’ve got a patch at ground level. It’s my biggest growing area, but it’s still not huge. This year alone it’s produced baskets of ivory white new potatoes, kilos of lovely tender runner beans, strings of onions, (that I sowed as seed and brought on in the Rhino) colanders of courgettes, and now leeks, which I haven’t harvested yet. They vary in size because the runner beans cast quite the shadow over several rows, but the smaller ones are catching up now, generally they all look brilliant. Leeks are one of my Favorite galliums and a vegetable I’m very fond of. I cook leeks in all manner of ways, but I have a few recipes that I come back to time and time again. A rich creamy leek gratin with a crunchy oaty cheesy topping is one such dish, and something I love to make on Sundays and serve along side roast pork or game sausages. I always like to make a Dorset Blue Vinny and poached leek tart at least once or twice a year; in fact I’ve been making it for over 20 years now. It’s so, so good. Sometimes I’ll make a batch of leek bhaji (of sorts) to accompany a spicy curry or dahl. They’re so easy to make, just thinly slice the leeks, tops and all, give them a rinse and pop them in a big bowl. Add plenty of gram (chickpea) flour, crushed cumin and coriander, nigella seeds, Chili flakes, salt and a big spoon of your Favorite curry powder. Add just enough water to make a thick coating batter. Fry small loose nests of the mix in hot oil until golden and crunchy. Yum!

I’ve been clearing out the raised beds this week too. My cabbages were awful, I grew six and none of them hearted up - so out they came, a real mystery, but the slugs enjoyed them nonetheless. Not sure if I’ll try those again! Likewise, my purple sprouting broccoli, well, lacked any purple sprouts, which given the allure, frustrated me immensely. These came out too and what a lot of space they’ve taken up this year. I’ve decided to only grow productive, space saving crops from now on, so that’s corn of the cob out of the equation I’m afraid, they don’t seem to do that well where I live anyway.

On a more positive note, the curly kale and rainbow chard are fantastic, reliable croppers and have kept us in greens all year. So I’ll be planting more of this next year, along with lots of lettuce, carrots, beetroot, radish, cucumbers and new potatoes and hopefully I’ll be harvesting my first tender green spears of asparagus this spring too, but first, let's get through the winter.

Written by Gill Meller
Images by Matt Austin Images

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