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snailIt's been a long, cold, wet summer in my part of the world and, from what I've been reading in the paper, some of you have been battling equally difficult conditions in the opposite direction (too dry). I guess it all boils down to living in a fickle, maritime climate which is why, at this time of year, all many of us want to do (once the jam and chutney has been made) is put our feet up and take a long break. But for the sake of your gardens, may I encourage you to do a little pre-winter maintenance before you hang up your tools?

At this time of the year, many crops have either been harvested or are in a state of decline. Dying plants and the decaying outer leaves of lettuce and brassicas are dropping onto the soil. Surplus, rotting fruit may be hanging on branches and, as autumn progresses, deciduous trees will soon be shedding a thick carpet of leaves onto paths and garden beds. If this was going on in your living room or kitchen, wouldn't you want to do something about it!

Dying plant material can harbour disease. Blight, viruses, and mildew are all after a winter home to hole up in until the warmth of spring when they can run rampant in your veggie patch. Aphids over-winter as eggs on the stumps of brassicas and lettuces left in the ground, ready to hatch in spring and make your life a misery. Snails and slugs slide under any leaves, stones and pots that offer protection from winter frosts and snow. Banks of autumn leaves settling on the garden soon form thick wads that not only shelter pest insects but also make it difficult for moisture to enter the beds. Come sowing time, these "leaf-pans" prevent germinating seeds from reaching the nourishing soil.

My pre-winter hygiene routine involves a quick gathering up of decaying material. I cut off unhealthy leaves and stalks from vegetables that will over-winter, and pop under shelter any bricks and stones that I've used to weigh down cloches. While I'm usually the most unfussy of people when it comes to composting, at this time of year I mix plenty of grass clippings in with my vegetable material and cover the heap with carpet or a tarpaulin. This helps heat up the heap in order to kill off bugs and disease.

On completely empty beds, I find the best clean-up is achieved by inviting the chooks in to give the soil a good scratch-over and munch on any slugs that may be hiding. Vegetables wintering-over (root crops, leeks, and brassicas) get a fresh round of mulch under which has been laid a scattering of slug bait.

The last of the weeds come out of the gardens before they have a chance to drop their seeds (I so do not want to have to deal with them next spring!) and autumn leaves are raked up and spread under the rhodos or tossed into wool fadges ready to use as a potato-growing medium come spring.

With the warm autumn sun on my back, this annual "putting to bed" of the garden for winter is a pleasure. If only I could summon up the same enthusiasm for spring cleaning the house!

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