Late summer love

By Sarah O'Neil

With summer almost over it's time to feast on the last of the season's fruit and veg and start making plans for autumn, writes Sarah O'Neil

February is the season of love and with Valentine's Day just behind us, we should still be feeling the warm fuzzies.

But this may also be because of the weather. February also has the warmest and most settled weather.

The vegetable garden should have you well and truly in harvest mode by now. The bounty to come from a late summer garden is magnificent: sweet corn so sweet, more tomatoes than you know what to do with and the crispiest, most delicious capsicum.

Making a meal out of the garden is just as much a pleasure due to the sheer abundance as it is to indulge in the fresh flavours.

However we are in the last few weeks of summer as indicated on the calendar.

By this stage of the season the garden is beginning to show its age, with tired and tatty leaves, exhausted from months of generating energy for the production of delicious things for us to eat.

The colour no longer holds the vibrant greens of spring and looks a little faded, as though tired of fending off the incessant pests and diseases that try to take advantage of our hard work.

After a season in the baking sun, the soil itself seems dry and lifeless -- the vegetables begin to lose their sparkle.

The excitement of that first tomato has given way to complacency and even boredom at the thought of eating yet more of them.

There is a strong temptation to fall out of love with the garden at this point and just walk away, leaving it as it is with the last of the harvest left clinging to the plant.

But the end of summer doesn't signal the end of the garden.

There is still plenty to do. With a bit of luck and an Indian summer we may go on to enjoy many more basketfuls of produce , so long as the ageing garden is treated with care, fed regularly and kept well watered.

But the time will come when we need to make a choice as to how we treat the garden in the cooling weather, walking away is not the best thing to do.

Dying plants left to languish in the garden can harbour pests and disease that can over winter in the garden.

If you thought you had it bad this season, next season could be even worse should you ignore the garden.

If you decide the season is over -- you should put the garden to bed properly.

Remove all trace of the plants that have given you their best over the last few months.

Inspect them thoroughly. If they just look tired, consign them to the compost heap so they can give back in the form of a rich, well-rotted organic material in the future.

If they have been struck down with disease or are riddled with pests, then get rid of them - in the rubbish or, if you can, burn them.

You don't want them hanging around waiting for an opportunity to return and bring harm to your crops next season.

Remove all the weeds and add some organic material like compost to help the garden to recover after a season of giving out.

Sowing a cover crop at this point will also be beneficial as it can be turned into the soil towards the end of winter to help enrich the soil for spring and it has the added advantage of keeping the soil weed-free.

Or you could put a generous layer of well rotted manure over the surface of the garden and allow the worms to drag it deep into the soil over the long bleak winter months.

If the prospect of manure about the place doesn't suit you, then sheet mulching could be just the thing. This is when you use cardboard to cover your soil and prevent the weeds.

The worms help to break it down and enrich the soil, but remove all staples, plastic and glue and pop some bricks or other heavy items, maybe a gnome or two to stop it blowing away.

However the best thing to do at the end of a summer garden is once all trace has been removed, re-enrich the soil as you would have done in the spring and plant a cool season garden.

There is quite an array of fabulous crops to grow in the winter that the garden will be full and the gardener will be kept busy throughout the winter.

It may not be cold yet but it will be soon and now is the time to start making plans for the next season.

Sarah is a celebrated garden blogger, speaker and author. Her books The Good Life and Play in the Garden are available now. On the web: www.sarahthegardener.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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