Heavenly Food - Autumn in the Permaculture Garden

Maddy Harland
Wednesday, 6th October 2010

Maddy celebrates the abundance of Autumn, and offers some growing and cooking tips for the season.

Ah, autumn is well and truly here. The gooseberries, currants, greengages, plums and figs have all been eaten. We’ve feasted on berries and succulent fruits like Brown Turkey figs and Oullin’s golden gages, as exotic as mangoes. Though the evenings are getting shorter, the pleasure isn’t over yet. This is one of the real joys of the permaculture garden; you can continue to keep reaping the benefits late into the year.

We grow 23 varieties of apple, early, mid and late cropping varieties. They ripen from July onwards and at least some store well and there is always the cider press! We have one tree, Hambledon Deux Ans, which originated in the neighbouring village. As indicated, it can store for up to two years in optimum conditions, but the arrival of refrigeration almost eradicated it. It isn’t very sweet, and when supermarkets started flying in apples from South Africa and New Zealand the old varieties were grubbed out. Luckily a local nurseryman decided to save a few trees. It’s a magnificent, healthy, vigorous tree full of large tart green apples, ideal for sauces, pies and crumbles. This is a salutary tale. Pre-refrigeration and pre-supermarkets, each village had its own special fruit tree that was locally adapted, cropped better and was more disease resistant than our generic modern varieties, bred to look pretty and uniform for the supermarket. How many of these heritage varieties have been lost? Thank goodness for places like Brogdale, home of the national fruit collections. We’ll need them in the near future once the madness of squandering our finite stock of oil and makes flying food around the globe an unacceptable insanity. Besides the Hambledon Deux Ans and another ‘local’ apple, Isle of Wight Russet, my other apple gem is a fabled tree from Bardsey Island off Wales. The story goes that a bird watcher found an old tree covered in sweet, golden apples outside the ruined monastery refectory on the island and brought some apples home to Ian Sturrock, a nurseryman. He tasted the apple and sought permission to propagate the tree. I am the lucky recipient of one of the trees. It has a fragrant blossom and is again a vigorous tree. Planted some years ago, I have eating my second season's crop and it was crisp, juicy and sweet for an English apple.

Fruit trees don't have to be expensive. Figs, for example, are like weeds and easily root from cuttings. Sharing cuttings and experimenting with own fruit root stock trees is fun if you have the room. A few well chosen trees from a reputable nursery are also worth every penny and will reward you with an annual crop that is incomparable to shop-bought varieties. And don't forget the vine fruit! It is also easy to root cuttings of plants like tayberries and Japanese wineberries that will outstrip raspberries in terms of size and taste, in my opinion. They too can be grown up a fence, a building or even in a hedgerow and autumn is the time for planting both trees and vines. 

 Besides apples, early autumn brings me my favourite pear. Merton Pride is the most sensual fruit I have ever encountered, being so large and juicy. The Hindus speak of Amrita, the nectar of the gods. I think one of its progeny is in my garden. Resplendent with blossom every spring, I have even made a remedy from its flowers with the traditional method of Dr Edward Bach. This is a tree of happiness, I am sure. All this glut of fruit isn't only for the rural gardener. Modern dwarf rootstocks and growing techniques like espaliers and fan training allow everyone with a garden to grow at least one or two trees. I have a friend who successfully grows nectarines fan trained on her southerly house wall. All she has to do is pollinate the flowers with a small paintbrush in the spring. I'm growing peaches too but mine are from a friend in Germany. He gave me 30 stones and assured me that if I germinate them they'll produce small but sweet fruits. They are also hardly and resistant to peach leaf curl, the scourge of Prunus trees in our damp climate. So far I have planted three saplings, having nursed them for two years in pots. I gave a few away too. 


But the latest tree to harvest in my garden is the Medlar, an old Turkish variety. It crops faithfully every year, is disease free but its fruits have to blet – ie they have to be left until after the first frost. This breaks down the fibre in the fruit and allows it to ripen. I once made a wine from medlar and Asian pear that was a powerful as sherry!

Family Foraging

Kids love foraging for berries in a hedgerow, picking their own tomatoes and scrumping top fruit. Taught young, they will pick and eat any food, but raw French beans and peas are a favourite. It’s easy to encourage good foraging habits. Just teach them what they can eat from babyhood and don’t grow poisonous berries. My kids experimented with an additional tadpole and slug when my back was turned but survived to tell the tale! I also taught them to pick fruit early in the morning, before the wasps get busy. That way, there are no stings. Becoming wasp and hornet savvy is important with lots of fruit around – they don’t need to be a hazard if we work around them and don’t let the fruit go rotten on the tree or the ground. Hornets aren't aggressive either. They just look formidable.

Tips for Planting Fruit Trees

  • Plant what you love to eat but be practical. Nectarines, for example, just don’t like rain and late spring frosts. They need to be grown in very sheltered conditions.
  • Seek out local varieties that suit your soil and climate. Grow fruit that rarely makes it to the supermarket (perhaps because it doesn’t store well) like green and golden gages. They are delicious.
  • Ask a reputable local nursery that sells fruit trees for advice.
  • As figs are vigorous plant them in a pit. Place rubble for good drainage at the bottom and paving slabs around the walls of the pit – or sink an old washing machine drum into the ground and plant into it! This constricts the roots and restricts the height of the tree leaving fruit within easy reach. Figs love a warm microclimate and the Brown Turkey variety will reward you with a succulent crop.
  • Experiment with medlars, quinces, damsons and mulberries. Less common, but very productive.
  • Don’t forget the nuts! We can also grow cobnuts – like giant hazelnuts – in small spaces – and large walnut trees that fruit after seven years.

Turn your hedge into a ‘fedge’ (fruiting hedge). Fedges can include figs, damsons, elder and trained berry vines like tayberries.

Back to Veggies

The permaculture garden isn’t all about fruit! Autumn brings to fruition tomatoes, beans, corn, courgettes, pumpkins, marrows, squashes and so much more... I grow as many butternut squash as I can and store them until March in a cool place. They are wonderful roasted and then topped with crême fraïche and Parmesan or grated in fritters and bakes. The family love spaghetti squashes as well, so called because their fruit scooped out resembles strands of spaghetti. They are delicious with butter and black pepper (but they don’t store so well as butternut). Pumpkins too keep well into the next year in a cool place. Don’t just plant the large Halloween affairs for sculpting, chose varieties that are sweet and flavoursome like Moschata Muscade. They make great roasts, savoury stuffed dishes, sweet pies and soups. My favourite soup is pumpkin, coconut milk, and chilli with freshly ground curry spices.

RECIPE

  • One medium sized squash, peeled and seeded
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil 1/4 teaspoon fresh nutmeg, grated black pepper to taste
  • 200g crême fraïche Grated cheese (parmesan or cheddar according to family preference)
  • 1 glass of white wine (optional)
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Cut peeled and seeded squash into 5cm lengths.
  3. Place squash on baking dish and drizzle with olive oil.
  4. Toss to coat and arrange in a single layer.
  5. Bake for 45 minutes, or until tender.
  6. Mix together crême fraïche , cheese, nutmeg and pepper and white wine if required. Add to roasting dish.
  7. Replace in oven and brown for 15 minutes.
  8. Serve hot with a roast meal.

d'em Beans

Runner beans too can grow well into the autumn. We have a passive solar kitchen – a large glazed area that heats the house when the sun shines. In mid summer, it can get hot so we grow food on the outside of the glass. The beans provide shade, and the house creates a fertile microclimate. This allows us to crop late into the year and the food couldn’t be closer to the kitchen sink for preparation.

What To Plant in Autumn..

September

Sow broad beans, spring cabbages, carrots and lettuces under cover. Plant out spring cabbages towards the end of the month in the colder north.

October

Plant cabbages in the south. Plant winter and spring lettuces. Continue to sow broad beans and lettuces under cover.

November

Continue to sow broad beans under cover and lettuces in the south. Sow early peas under cover and garlic outside.

Further resources

September jobs: plant and preserve

Prepare your winter crops: Patrick Whitefield on the art of hardening of crops

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