Autumn is the time of year to reap the rewards of a long summer. Kevin Revell shows you how to prepare your harvest for winter
The word ‘harvest’ is derived from the old English word ‘hærfest’, which literally means ‘autumn’ – a time of mists and mellow fruitfulness; a time when all the hard work put into the garden over the spring and summer comes to fruition and crops are gathered and stored for the lean times ahead.
Surplus root vegetables can be stored outdoors in clamps, a simple storage system which predates the freezer by some centuries. It consists of alternating layers of vegetables, straw and soil. The produce remains accessible and in good condition, even in the hardest winter weather which would prevent them being dug directly from the ground. Leeks keep well left in the ground however, and some would maintain that it is not worth eating parsnips until after the first frost to improve sweetness.
Potatoes are best stored when clean and dry in hessian sacks in a dark, cool place to prevent them sprouting prematurely and developing poisonous green patches if left in the light. Onions and garlic are often tied into strings and stored in a cool place.
Fruit is best eaten fresh in terms of flavour and health benefits, so in the probable absence of a cold store, sheds and outhouses are ideal to store carefully selected fruit such as apples and pears. Line them up on wooden racks or bread crates to take the harvest well into the new year. Ensure good air movement between the racks and choose only the best fruit to store; remember to check periodically to prevent the depredations of rot, rogue snails and vermin. Try to avoid the fruit touching one another to limit the spread of rot; the old adage of one bad apple spoiling the barrel was never so true as in its original meaning.
Other vegetables that store well include marrows, squashes and pumpkins, which in a good year will yield substantial crops that defy immediate consumption. Runner and French beans are best frozen in season but a few that are left in late summer to mature and dry out, can be harvested and stored to add to winter soups and stews. Those with a large or a second freezer will be able to fill it up with frozen stewed fruit, suitable for future pies and crumbles. If space is limited, get hold of a few old kilner jars and preserve bottled fruit in syrup which will last for a year or so if stored in cool, dark conditions. Chutneys are always a good way of using up a few pounds of windfalls or slightly damaged fruit that will not keep well.
The old adage of one bad apple spoiling the barrel was never so true as in its original meaning
Some vegetables such as small onions, shallots and beetroot lend themselves to home pickling, preserving them in spiced vinegar, while garlic and chillies can be stored in oil or brine. Many fruits lend themselves to drying which ideally is done outdoors on strings in late summer but such conditions can be mimicked on baking trays in a low oven for a few hours. Tomatoes and apples make excellent dried fruits, the intensified flavours will make a fine addition to the store cupboard for use on cold winter days. Anyone with a greenhouse will no doubt be overrun with tomatoes and chillies which crop well into the autumn but are unlikely to ripen successfully in October. These are best converted into sauces or soups and frozen to enjoy later in the year. Any excess produce can easily be converted into chutneys and pickles which can be enjoyed for over a year. Virtually every chutney recipe has a base of apples and tomatoes so it is well worth growing a number of these to provide the impetus to get out the preserving pans.
Even the falling autumn leaves can be regarded as a harvest of sorts, as they can be gathered and stored in bins or bags for a year or so until they decompose into leaf mould, a peaty type material ideal for soil conditioning and mulching shrubs and hedges around the garden. It is not possible to buy this material in shops or garden centres so it really does pay to make your own and get involved in garden recycling while improving the soil and earthworm population of your garden. Those lucky enough to live on tree-lined streets can easily get out before the council street cleaning vehicles come round and bag up some gardening gold – an extremely valuable resource which far too many people throw away or needlessly complain about.
The autumn harvest need not be limited to what the garden provides; a wild harvest is to be found in the countryside where you may be familiar with collecting blackberries. Autumn is also the time to look for hedgerow sloes which resemble small plums and make an excellent winter warmer in sloe gin which should be ready to drink in time for Christmas. Crab apples and rowan trees can be raided to make fine jellies which will not be available in the shops. Meanwhile, those keen on 1940s revivals might collect rose hips to make a vintage cordial rich in vitamin C, which stood our parents and grandparents in good stead in times of wartime naval blockades. Children will be out searching for conkers but a more useful harvest is available from chestnut trees – an occasional good year will yield some decent size nuts, while even beech mast is edible if you are prepared for the fiddly task of removing the husks.
Walnut trees can be productive in a good year and hazels and cobnuts can usually be relied on, provided that there are not too many squirrels in the area. Mushrooms and fungi also abound at this time of year but care must be taken in only picking the edible types – go out with an experienced mushroom hunter or go along to an organised fugal foray, who forage in an ethical manner leaving some areas undisturbed to grow again in subsequent years. With experience and a keen eye, areas to find these resources can be committed to memory, shared knowledge passed down the generations and revisited year after year to provide a harvest of food for free just as our forbears did.
Kevin Revell is the Plant Area Manager at Caerphilly Garden Centre