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This month in the garden - 2023

October in the Garden

There's lots to do in October as the garden gradually transitions to winter. Plant all the winter brassicas now, if you haven't already. You can also plant garlic, onions, leeks, habas, beetroot, radishes, turnips, spinach, celery, fennel, carrots, parsnips, swiss chard and lettuce, rocket, coriander, mustard leaves, peas and mange tout.

There is no need to add manure or compost to the winter beds as most of these crops will do well just with the residues of the summer. With too much nutrition in the soil, habas (broad beans) will have a leafy growth and a poor bean crop; carrots will grow hairy roots and beetroot will be all tops with small beetroots; radishes will turn hollow and have a hotter flavour.

On the other hand, celery, fennel and chard will appreciate a little extra compost. Brassicas have a long growing period and would benefit from a feed - later on. Giving them too much nitrogen early on can make them vulnerable to aphid attack. Similarly, a scattering of wood ash later on will help the cauliflower heads to develop, and burying fish heads under your cabbages will make them bigger and more dense.

If the temperature stays warm and the nights are not cold enough to kill off garden pests, we will have to think about strategies to protect our tender seedlings from attack. Brassicas are especially vulnerable to shield beetles, the swede midge and grasshoppers that are still hanging around after summer. They can become quite a challenge to grow. We can use pesticides but even organic ones, such as neem, are still a toxin and although they kill pests, they may also kill predators and beneficial insects. Some of those pests provide a meal to another creature somewhere in the food chain, so their absence further depletes the insect population.

Rachel Carson warned of the possible catastrophic decline in the insect population due to the widespread use of agricultural pesticides in her 1962 book Silent Spring. Sixty years on from the publication of her book the insect population has been massively depleted. No longer are our car windscreens thick with dead insects after a long drive and the honey bee population is dwindling across the world.

Instead of employing the mindset of eradicating the pest, try thinking about strengthening the resilience of your plants, and encouraging predators to move into your garden. This can be achieved simply by providing the nutrients your plants need to become healthy and robust. Add plenty of organic matter to your soil to encourage microbial activity and build a soil food web (a community of organisms living in the soil). Plant a diverse selection of herbs and flowers to attract all kinds of insects. A pest only becomes a pest when the equilibrium is off and there is a lack of predators to keep the pests in check, or a lack of food so the pest become so because they have accumulated on one variety of garden plant due to a lack of anything else to eat. Rather than trying to decrease the population of one creature, try to increase populations of many.

As Carson wrote in Silent Spring “Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it. Thus he undoes the built-in checks and balances by which nature holds the species within bounds.”

While you are building your garden's resilience, and waiting for it to find its equilibrium, the pests may well need to be controlled. Consider doing this with physical barriers - agricultural fleece or netting can be used to keep insects off your plants, and can be removed once the temperature drops enough to kill off the cabbage white butterflies and grasshoppers. Caterpillars and snails can be removed by hand and moved to the compost heap, where they will find useful work to do.

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