At the end of the summer it's tempting to let the veg patch gently slide and allow the post harvest tangle and torpor to take over. But September, far from being the end of the season, turns out to be an excellent month for cranking back into action and sowing some new crops for autumn and winter. So, apologies if you were hoping to chuck in the trowel, there's still plenty of veg left to sow.
This is an excellent time to grow oriental leaves like Pak choi, Wong bok and Choi sum. How so? Well, these are cool season plants and will bolt (run to seed) too quickly when sown in the hot dry conditions of late spring and summer. These crops (this also applies to rocket, spinach and mustards) are best sown in very early spring and at the end of the summer so that they develop good leaves that don't taste bitter (bitter tasting leaves are another possible side effect of bolting). There's now a huge variety of wonderful sounding (and tasting) Asian vegetables to try (see the seed companies listed below). You can grow them as separate crops or in a stir-fry mix.
Growing salad through the winter is entirely possible and a good alternative to those horrible bags of salad - the ones that immediately (and suspiciously) go slimy once they've been open for half an hour. You may need a cold-frame or cloche to keep the worst of the cold weather off, but with the right varieties you can easily grow salad leaves throughout the whole year. Lettuce 'Winter Density', 'Merveille des Quatre Saisons', or other hardy loose-leaved lettuce varieties, together with lamb's lettuce, rocket, mizuna, mibuna and radicchio will all eke it out through the winter. Sow every few weeks until November (when germination rates become too slow) for a continuous supply.
Swiss Chard is the queen of the winter vegetable garden, mainly because of its looks and the fact that not many pests (or members of my family) will eat it. If you have fusspots too, you may need to have some enticing recipes to hand, or shred it into soups, stews and stir-fries. Grow Ruby chard, or a variety called 'Bright Lights' for fantastically coloured stems and leaf ribs. Unfortunately the dazzling colours fade once cooked (or remain looking gorgeous in the veg patch if no one can be persuaded to eat them). The ordinary white-stemmed chard is almost as beautiful and tastes much better than its glamorous cultivars.
Kale - 'Redbor', 'Red Russian', 'Cavolo Nero de Toscana' - makes a fine sight in the winter vegetable garden too, and the above varieties sound so robust and vital that just typing their names is making me feel healthier. Kale is a brassica, so needs rich, firm soil, but it is very hardy and easy to grow, not suffering as badly from pests or environmental stresses as some of the other family members. Make sure you keep brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale) protected from pesky pigeons with some netting through the winter.
This is a good month for sowing spinach too. Sow a hardy variety like 'Dominant' in the autumn for a winter harvest, or try perpetual spinach, which will happily keep going all through the winter months, although you may need a cloche in severe conditions.
Parsley, chives, coriander and chervil - not a new song suggestion for Simon and Garfunkel - are excellent herbs to sow now for quick results. Sow some outside and some in pots to bring in when the weather gets colder. You can also take cuttings of shrubby herbs like sage, rosemary and thyme for the windowsill too. And if you can't be bothered to grow more herbs, now is a good time to preserve some of them by chopping them up and freezing (in water or oil) in ice cube trays. Keep in the freezer until needed and just drop them into your cooking.
Spring Cabbages taste sweeter and fresher than the winter versions and you might just be in time to sow some if you're quick. Try 'Duncan' or 'Spring Hero'. Cabbages sown at this time of the year will still need netting (or vigilantly checking) against caterpillars, which will be active until the end of October, when the pigeons take over. Both these pests can decimate a crop within a few days.
Broad beans and peas can be sown now and overwintered under cloches. Growth will be slow through the winter, but will speed up again in early spring, which will mean that you'll be harvesting fresh peas and broad beans about a month earlier than those sown in the spring. Good overwintering varieties are broad bean 'Aquadulce Claudia' and pea 'Feltham First'. You can also sow pea tips to add to salads at any time of the year.
Plant onion and garlic sets in the autumn for early summer harvests next year. 'Sets' are tiny onion bulbs that will quietly expand into full-sized onions through the winter and spring, ready for harvesting in early summer next year. Yes, you do only get an onion for an onion, but they're easy to grow and once harvested will store well too. Garlic bulbs must be split into cloves and, planted in the autumn, each clove will form a new garlic bulb by next summer.
The summer might be ending, but it's certainly not all over in the garden yet. So, if you're still standing, pick up that trowel, put on your boots and let's stay out there.
Chiltern Seeds and the Real Seed Company are good sources of oriental vegetable seeds, Seeds of Italy are excellent for spinach, rocket and kale, Thompson & Morgan, Unwins, Marshalls will have a good general selection.