T-Shirts in Late Autumn

After working eight days straight I finally had a day off to myself last week, and what a day it was! I can’t quite believe that November here and I’ve been out *sweating* in a t-shirt and leggings in the garden! The sun is still warming the earth and some of my spring flowers are a little confused, and I’m not surprised.

Still, it’s given me a chance to do some catching up. The heleniums, echinacea, lavender and crocosmia have all been cut back now, and the compost heap has been filled with the remnants of summer and early autumn flower beds, asparagus tops, lawn clippings and shrub prunings. Of course there’s still so much more to do but I have the feeling that this year, we’ve just about kept on top of things ahead of the big winter sleep.

Raspberries in november

The summer raspberries are even still fruiting, with a few canes hanging on for dear life, determined to produce some last jewelled berries before the frosts set in. And in the veg plots, I have two squashes that are still swelling in size. The pumpkin seems to have had a bit of a renaissance, suddenly producing lots of lush green foliage and surging its way up the wire mesh I’ve provided as a climbing frame. The butternut squash looks less healthy, and seems to be pouring all its energy into the single fruit that remains on the vine.

I can’t quite remember a late October like this, and it’s been very therapeutic to just work out in the sunshine below a china blue sky. I have a feeling it could be the last sunny, warm and cloudless day we’ll see for quite a long time and I am so glad I wasn’t stuck inside all day missing it.

But there is still so much to do at The Smallest Smallholding before we start winding down for winter. Here’s what’s ahead:



Dormant tree ready for planting

Planting trees
We still have two apple trees to plant and another to find to ensure that we have fertile collection of trees for next year! Late autumn and winter is a great time to get trees and large shrubs in the ground. As long as you can get a spade in, you should be fine to plant.

autumn leaves for leaf mould

Gather leaves for leafmould & clean leaves out of the pond
With plenty of windy weather of late, there are lots of leaves to collect. Leaves can take quite a long time to break down amongst other compostables so leaf litter can be gathered and kept moist but not waterlogged in a container or bag to create crumbly leafmould for conditioning the soil in borders and veg plots. A purpose built leaf litter bin is great if you have lots of leaves to contend with, but for smaller gardens an old compost bag with breathing holes or a leafmould bag bought online should suffice. If you have a pond, make sure to regularly remove any leaves from the pond surface and cut back any marginal plants to avoid decay in the water. More advice for pond maintenance and water gardening here! Don’t be too tidy – leave a few leaves on the ground for wildlife as leaves are great nesting material and cover.

Mulch the veg plots
Autumn is a great time to dress your soil with at least a couple of inches of organic compost or well-rotted manure. In autumn, the soil is still warm enough so the worms will rise up and access the new material. Then over winter the weather will also help to break down any lumps in the compost or organic matter, and in spring the mulch can be raked in. NO need to dig!

Last chance to mow & cut hedges
Luckily we kept on top of our hedges this year and as the days have shortened, the hedges have stopped growing so we’re ready for winter! We now have lovely dense hedging that will help keep the birds and wildlife protected in the bitter winter winds and temperatures. But if you’re a bit behind then October in particular is a great month to get those last cuts done before winter. The unseasonably warm weather has meant that we’re still mowing but soon it’ll be your last chance saloon before the ground gets too wet!

Divide perennials and rhubarb crowns
Our heleniums exploded this year so we’ve got lots of dividing to do into new beds this autumn – free plants! Summer flowering perennials can be divided round about now – this includes our salvia, sedum, verbena, agapanthus and geraniums. With the soil still warm it’s a great time to get your flower beds laid out and really for spring, and in the veg plots the rhubarb crown can also be divided. Just get rid of any decayed or weak crowns, and then using a spade divide the crown at the root and replant.

Colour me happy this winter

As the evenings are drawing in and the leaves are falling from the trees, it’s easy to feel a little despondent. Especially when the landscape turns from a multicoloured Autumn spectacle into a drab brown, green and grey mire. That’s why this year I’ve been determined to bring a little cheer into my life. I do love Autumn but sometimes the persistent grey clouds and long, dark nights can be a drain, so now is a great time to turn up the saturation filter and get some winter blooms in place.

My back doorstep has become a little haven for potted plants. The steps are in a corner and sheltered from the winds that gather pace and blow furiously down the side of our house into the garden beyond, and surrounded by two brick walls offer a little lift in temperature. Earlier this summer I planted up a small herb pot for use in the kitchen, and since tidying up the steps I’ve potted up some winter colour bedding in various pots, sent to me from Plant Me Now.

Pansies for winter colour

As the name suggests, Plant Me Now sends out plants that are ready to go in NOW, so no worrying about whether it’s the right time of year, if they are suited to the British winter or all that malarky. I am still a bit rubbish about knowing which plants flower when and what are annuals as my main consideration is pretty much “are they good for pollinators”. So having a suitable selection to choose from is really handy.

Pansy Matrix Morpheus

Pansy Matrix Morpheus

I planted up the following flowers in my pots, all of which have been in for over a month and are looking as good as new. The pansy varieties are mostly compact and have been bred to last longer than other pansies:

Pansy – Cool Wave (yellows, whites, purples, blues – winter and early spring bloomer)
Pansy – Matrix Morpheus (yellow and purple)
Pansy – Matrix Marina (light blue, deep blue and white)
Pansy – Frizzle Sizzle Burgundy
Wallflower – Sugar Rush Yellow
Lemon Thyme (Thymus citriodorus) ‘Golden Queen’ (adds great texture, variegated colour and scent)

Pansy Frizzle Sizzle Burgundy

Pansy Frizzle Sizzle Burgundy

At this time of year you can also try primulas, polyanthus, violas and in spring cyclamen and bulbs such as irises, narcissus and tulips will bring earlier colour. Heuchera are also a fab choice as are evergreen herbs such as rosemary, lavender and sage.

Pansy Cool Wave Selection

Pansy Cool Wave Selection

I’m looking forward to still having some winter colour around, I find it’s good for the soul and will help just a little bit to keep away those winter blues…

How to Make Sloe Gin

It’s gin o’clock… almost!

Sloes for gin

The sloes have been ripening on the blackthorn bush for what feels like weeks now, and quite frankly, my impatience got the better of me. I need some sloe gin ready for Christmas and the longer I have to let the sloes ferment, the better my gin will be. I mean, you could leave it for a year and you’ll have something amazing. In 5 years you’ll have the best sloe gin ever known to mankind. But I’m too impatient. And at this rate, with 23C temperatures in September, it’ll be a long while until the first frosts hit – traditionally when it’s advised that you pick your first sloes.

So to compensate for the balmy Indian summer, I plucked the sloes from my own homegrown blackthorn bushes (at night, I should add, in my pyjamas and armed with a head torch) and stored them in the fridge for a few days. They then went in the freezer overnight to simulate a cold snap. And now, we’re ready!

Sloe - blackthorn bush

How to Make Sloe Gin

It’s really quite simple. Sterilise your jar. Pick your sloes, freeze them to split the skins, wash them,  bung them in an air-tight container, then add gin and sugar. The volume of gin should be 1:1, so if you have a container, fill it halfway with sloes and the rest of the space is taken up with the gin. Simple. You can find my full How to Make Sloe Gin post here if you need a bit more guidance (and check out the comments for some top tips).

sloe gin steeping in a kilner jar

My gin is now doing it’s thing and waiting for me to take the first slug in December. It’ll need a turn each day for a while, and then a gentle shake every week or so until thereafter. I opted for a cheap Ikea airtight glass jar to ferment it, and sterilised by washing in warm soapy water and then drying in the oven on a low temperature for a few minutes. I’m pretty sure a run through the dishwasher would be fine too.

What Gin Should I Use for Sloe Gin?

The general consensus is that you don’t need a top quality gin to make great sloe gin – even just a supermarket brand will do. I was given a bottle of Bombay Sapphire for my birthday last year, and because I don’t generally drink much (apart from damson gin or sloe gin in winter, it seems) I’ve still got loads left. So for me, from a frugal point of view it makes sense to use the Bombay Sapphire, but equally if I was to go out and buy a bottle of supermarket own that would do the job.

How Much Sugar Do I Put in my Sloe Gin?

It depends on your tastes – anything from a couple of tablespoons of sugar will do the trick. I have a fairly sweet tooth, so anything from 150g per half litre of gin should do the job. If you have a really sweet tooth, around 250g sugar per half litre of gin should be plenty!

One last tip…

When foraging for sloes, please only take 10-20% of the fruit on the bush. The rest is for the wildlife.