It’s dull, it’s chilly, and the garden’s wrapped up and ready for its winter slumber. What, you might ask, could possibly be sown now? A fair bit as it turns out!
So discard those end-of-season blues, but don’t desert the garden for the next few months because – believe it or not – there’s sowing to be done!
Autumn Sowing Fava Beans
To my eyes there’s more to be sown this month than either last or next month. Where I live the soil is clinging on to the remnants of the summer’s warmth and winter is still a few weeks away, which offers a precious opportunity to get a few crops started and one step ahead for next spring.
First on my list is fava beans, the hardiest of all the beans. It can be sown in the closing chapters of the current growing season to set us up for a stonking crop in the next.
Fava beans are a bit like Goldilocks – you need to catch the sowing window just right. Too early and the plants grow fast and fleshy, making them vulnerable to freezing weather. Too late and they may not grow at all before winter, and the beans will rot away before they’re even started. But catch it just right and you’ll produce short, stocky seedlings with an excellent root system below ground that’ll set you up for a really very healthy and super-early harvest next season.
In past years I’ve hedged my bets by sowing some beans direct into the soil outside, and some into plug trays filled with all-purpose potting mix. The ones sown in plug trays always do well, so I’m not going to bother with direct sowing this time.
Sow one seed per plug, to a depth of at least an inch (3cm), then cover them over with more potting mix. Water them, then grow them on under cover – for instance in a greenhouse or cold frame – where it’s just a touch warmer than outdoors.
While it does get freezing cold in my greenhouse, it won’t plunge to the extremes felt outdoors. Freezing temperatures and bone-chilling winds, especially early in the winter, can cause your beans to wilt and collapse, so if you typically get very harsh winters you may be safer to wait til early spring to make your first sowings of fava beans.
If you do sow in the autumn, look for hardy varieties described as suitable for sowing at this time of year. Sow them early enough that they’ve germinated before cold weather halts growth, which in my neck of the woods tends to be in early November, or the start of late autumn.
Planting Peas in Fall
Next up: peas! Choose a very hardy variety of pea that’s described as being suitable for sowing in autumn and overwintering, for instance ‘Meteor’, which is famous for being really hardy and super early. They’ll provide the first peas of the season – as early as late spring – all borne in beautiful, generously filled pods. ‘Meteor’ is a low-growing pea so it’s also ideal for growing in containers or in windier locations, making it a hugely valuable variety.
Interestingly, peas suited for autumn sowing have almost universally round rather wrinkly seeds. And there’s a good logic to this. Wrinkled seeds have nooks and crannies in which water can collect, which at this cooler time of year could cause the seeds to rot. Smooth, round seeds, on the other hand, do not – making them foolproof for sowing now.
There’s no way I would sow my peas direct because they’ll almost certainly either get snaffled up by mice, or rot away in the wet. So, instead, I use my usual go-to seed starting container for deeper-rooted seedlings like peas: toilet paper tubes. Wedge several into a tray and fill them with potting mix. Sow two seeds per tube, popping them about 2 inches (5cm) deep, then water them in.
Another option is to make your own newspaper pots. This video explains how to make recycled seed starting containers in detail.
To be doubly sure to keep rodents out, you can put your trays of toilet paper tubes into a lidded container until the seedlings germinate.
In early spring, once your seedlings are about 8in (20cm) tall, it's time to plant them. Grow them in a sunny position, in well-drained soil, and against suitable supports such as twiggy sticks.
Cardboard tubes go very soft and may even start to fall apart by the time they are good to be planted in spring, but I find they’re still very much useable and with care the whole thing can be planted (the tube will soon rot down into the soil).
Autumn Planting Sweet Peas
Although you can’t eat sweet peas, their beautiful, sweetly scented flowers will feed your soul! They will lift your spirits and offer a steady supply of posies to bring in and brighten the home. I think gardening needs to feed every bit of you – including that nature-inspired spirit!
Sweet peas are started off just like peas, two seeds per toilet paper tube. Sweet peas germinate best in the warm, so start them off indoors then, once the green shoots are an inch or two tall, move them out into a greenhouse or cold frame to continue growing.
The young plants can be transplanted outside sometime in mid-spring, once the weather has warmed up a bit. Plant them out when you know there’s likely to be a stretch of mild weather for the next week or so. Grow them up bamboo canes or obelisks where they’ll create a riot of colour and a scent that’s heaven sent! They also look fab in containers.
I strongly believe that onions grow best from seed, and seed enables you to multi-sow, so you can then grow your onions in clusters, which makes the most efficient use of space. But if you’re itching to plant more this autumn, you could try growing from onion sets.
Sets are basically immature bulbs, dug up after their first season to replant and grow on for a second, which is when they’ll bulk out into full-size bulbs. Ordinarily, onions flower in their second year, but sets sold specifically for autumn-planting have been heat-treated to reduce the risk of that. And by planting sets now there’s a chance you’ll be harvesting these guys a full three to four weeks ahead of those planted in spring.
You can plant your onion sets direct if your winters aren’t too cold, but I’ve had issues with downy mildew in the past and I don’t want in-ground sets carrying over diseases through the winter. This way I get a nice, clean break, and as a bonus there won’t be any problems with birds pulling up the sets. If you’re planting into plugs, choose a plug tray with generous sized plugs to allow for plenty root growth over the winter months.
To plant, simply push and twist the set into place so most that of it is buried in the potting mix, making sure the root end faces down. The pointy tip should be just sticking out of the potting mix. As you plant, be sure to select only the best sets – nice and firm, and blemish free – and discard any that are soft or going moldy.
Plant your onion sets outside as soon as the soil is workable in early spring. They’ll likely be a few inches tall by then and desperate to break free from their plugs and out into the soil. Plant them about 4-6in (10-15cm) apart.
Planting Garlic in Fall
I’m a garlic fiend – I’ll happily chuck in half a bulb when a recipe calls for a clove! There are two main types of garlic. Hardnecks are super-hardy and produce bulbs with fewer, fatter cloves, plus as a bonus you get ‘scapes’, which are the edible flowering stalks. Softnecks on the other hand produce more cloves that are a bit smaller, but which store really well.
Planting garlic is super simple. First rake an organic fertilizer such as bonemeal into the soil. This should help to establish a strong root system, which is what the plants really need on this side of winter.
Carefully break apart the bulb and plant the cloves around 6in (15cm) apart. Plant them fairly deep so that the tip of each clove sits about an inch (2-3cm) below the surface. Prioritize the largest cloves for planting, as there is a direct correlation between the size of the clove you plant, and the eventual size of the bulb that follows. Big isn’t always best – but it is when it comes to garlic!
If your winters are harsh, pile on some leaves over the bulbs. This will help to insulate the soil from the worst of the cold, and the leaves will gradually rot down and help to improve the soil. Once spring arrives, just remove any leaves that remain so that light can get at the garlic shoots.
If you have some small cloves left over, try growing them in a container to harvest what’s called ‘wet garlic’, which is picked before it is fully mature and can be enjoyed whole, stems and all.
How Grow a Quick Late Crop of Cilantro
Cilantro is one of my favorite herbs, but it can be prone to bolting, or running to seed. Now that’s just fine if you want to harvest the seed pods to grind up into coriander powder. But if you’re after lots of lovely cuts of the aromatic leaves, it’s not so good.
Late summer or autumn sowings are far less likely to bolt, because the days are getting shorter – the plants only really bolt when the days are longer.
I’m doing my cilantro a little differently this time round. I soaked the seeds overnight then wrapped them in a cloth, and dunked the cloth in water twice a day to keep everything moist until they developed small roots.
I sowed the pre-sprouted seeds into seed flats made from old mushroom containers with holes punched across the bottom for drainage, and filled with potting mix. I covered the seeds over and watered them before growing them on in the sheltered conditions of my greenhouse (or you could use a cold frame). You can always speed things along by popping the container on an indoor windowsill until they emerge through the potting mix.
You should be able to start harvesting the leaves after a month or so, once they reach about 6in (15cm) tall. If you’re careful not to damage the growing point in the middle, there’s a good chance you’ll get a second cut a few weeks on from that. Bonus!
Wow – there’s quite a bit to be sowing now when you come to think of it! What will you be tempted to sow? Comment down below!