Fiann O Nualláin discusses the end of autumn and the battle with weeds

Fiann O Nualláin begins a new gardening column this week just as the year is beginning to wind down. He discusses the end of autumn 

Deireadh Fómhair— translating as “end of autumn” or “harvest time” reminds us that autumn is ending and the winter season is next door.

That said endings are beginnings and while this weekend and the next few weeks may be all about the harvesting and the tidying, there are plenty of opportunities for new beginnings too.

This is the perfect time to plant trees, hardwood shrubs, heathers, fruiting trees and cane fruits. 

Cold frames and polytunnels can extend the season too. Over my articles to come I hope to explore the possibilities of the moment — the opportunities of the seasons as we are in them.

Gardening is all about timing, all about syncing with the seasons, sometimes it’s a little about tricking the plant to extend its season or advance its harvest but in general we have to deal with what we have. 

If summer was a wash-out or a scorcher, that not only impacts on how well the garden looked, and how much maintenance it required, but has a knock on effect into autumn too. 

In terms of the hand we are dealt, BBC’s Gardener’s World and all those RHS ‘how to’ books are great for general advice, but Britain has a different climate and we need to rediscover some of our uniqueness.

Fiann O Nualláin discusses the end of autumn and the battle with weeds

The figs in London this week are yielding a second harvest and mine in Dublin are looking like they need a Lemsip — but we are the emerald isle for a reason and I love that all my herbs are lush with recent rains (while the physic garden in Chelsea is going over). 

So I hope to explore our uniqueness in the coming articles and from time to time interview some Irish experts and home-grown growers to really explore our growing potential. 

As well as looking at what is going on around the world with horticulture and biodiversity.

So what growing conditions can we expect this month? Well October sees more Atlantic-fronted westerly winds on the move. 

Generally they pass over relatively warm seas and so usher in showers and rain belts (not a bad thing for gardeners – get a poncho picnickers). 

Anticyclones active by day, yield a good number of pleasant days too. Yes temperatures are falling like the leaves, and we can arch back into single digits in no time.

I am organic, I don’t use lawn feeds, weed killers or pesticides other than those I make from plants I grow, wood I may burn, or minerals I can pick up in a builder’s yard or chemist - but I will point out that most commercial chemical products perform at their best in double digit temperatures and you might just be wasting your money now that we are getting colder. 

Sunlight and the day’s length will shorten by around two hour’s worth over the next few weeks so frost and lingering cool can arise and we may need to think of lifting tenders or preparing for winter. More on that soon.

As it is harvest time you should be picking apples, autumn raspberries, beetroot, the last of the legumes, horseradish roots and other root crops including carrots and maincrop potatoes and also pumpkins and squashes, pears and quinces. If you’re not, you can always plan to harvest them next year.

If you want to begin growing your own — then this is the month to start, many local GIY clubs are taking in new members and novices are absolutely welcomed. 

Visit  to find a local club or start your own – and their tutorials are excellent.

If you want to make a start or get your children or grandchildren enthused, then broad beans can be started under a fleece or cloche or in a cold frame this month and peas can be started in individual pots or loo-roll inners — on a window sill, in a polytunnel or cold frame. 

You can plant out garlic, hardy onion sets, spring cabbage and overwintering brassicas – into a container, a wall mounted upcycled pallet or even a hanging basket. 

You don’t need a plot to garden. The only limit is your imagination and motivation.

If you do have a plot on the go or a garden where you grow, then this weekend you may be weeding and the main culprit for this month is very often the thistle. 

There are many varieties, but the ones that most prick Irish gardeners and allotmenteers are the common thistles, aka spear thistle (Circium vulgare) and the creeping thistle (Circium arvense) both busy ripening their seed to parachute and readying an invasion force to blitz the rest of your growing space.

Fiann O Nualláin discusses the end of autumn and the battle with weeds

With their energy for proliferation, it is an ideal moment to launch a counter-attack on their roots. 

Cutting off the tops forces the roots to try to regenerate, then boiling water will damage the roots and start rot. 

If the root survives and pushes up new shoots it has spent most of its energies and is shrunk enough for you to hit it again or dig it out. 

The more you agitate it with hoeing, hand pulling, hot water and prising up the roots, the more you deplete it to nothing.

The battle to get it now, saves a war come next spring. Flowering plants cut down will not set viable seed. 

A flush of emergence of any viable seeds dropped is often stimulated by rainfall — so covering an area with weed membrane deprives the plants of photosynthesis (food) and also generates drought-induced mortality. 

Sounds so cruel but these guys are an enemy – they are strong competitors for soil resources. They quickly crowd out your ornamental and edible germinations and smaller crops too.

And they host several garden pests and their seed attracts ants. Thistles share the same family as chicory and endive, salsify, lettuce, globe artichoke and Jerusalem artichoke and can host pathogenic fungi and viruses that affect those crops. 

Circium vulgare is deciduous, common to gardens and cultivated ground, sharply pointed leaves and flowers from July to October. Biennial, it can go four years without flowering.

Circium arvense is perennial, more associated with pasture than exposed soil but its extensive creeping root system can cause havoc if allowed into your garden – often by the vector of bird droppings and imported top soil. 

Dioecious with male flowers, but more spherical in the female form, it has lobed leaves with sharp spines.

Tips for the weekend

* Check stakes and ties before breezes become winds.

* Clear remaining summer bedding and tidy summer herbaceous plants

* Sweep up leaves and start a soil enriching leaf mould process for next year by piercing a few air holes in the bin liner you gather them into. Store in the shade or shed for the next six months.

* Raise the cut on the lawnmower as this puts the lawn under less stress as the light levels drop

* Think of what fruits you could plant in the garden.

* Get those combats on and go gung ho on weeds


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