The low morning sun and glistening frost of November gives the kitchen garden a silent glow, making it one of my favourite months. We have a resident robin that follows us around the garden with an expectant gaze, waiting for us to turn up some interesting morsels during our continued cultivation. Garden tasks have undoubtedly slowed down, but as November is the time when heavy frosts and relentless rain are frequent, we need to plan our time well.
At River Cottage HQ our cookery school calendar quietens down at this time of year, leaving us more time to work on development projects around the farm. This year our pig pens need renovation and we will break ground with new chestnut fencing shortly. We use chestnut fence posts because, even untreated, they will last longer than treated softwood, and if you find the right supplier they can be sourced from the UK. Currently, our pig pens are divided into separate areas, but to make the rotation easier we have decided to perimeter fence our paddocks with the intention of dividing up with electric, making it easier to make changes the size of the pens according to the size of the litter in the spring. Pigs are fantastic escape artists so murder tight stock fencing and mains electric are required to keep them in. We often run a strained plain wire at the base of the stock fence to prevent inquisitive noses pushing the bottom of the fence up. We don’t keep pigs in the winter as they damage the ground, so this is the best time to re-do the fencing.
From November onwards it is the time to start pruning our cider apple trees. Cider has been an important part of West Country tradition for hundreds of years. It is the nectar of myth, legend, business, pleasure and payment, and so at River Cottage we feel that it should be a part of what we do as well. We have fifty or so cider apple trees on the farm with twenty different varieties. They were planted for one of our TV shows back in 2007 and have only now started to produce enough fruit to make some cider (still not enough to pay all the staff!).
Pruning any fruit tree is all about making decisions, so if you’re a bad decision maker, get someone else to help! Every specimen is different and should be treated as such, but the principles remain the same. Before you start, you need to have an idea of what shape you are aiming to achieve. I have decided to prune our trees as an open goblet shape. This un-traditional method of pruning cider apple trees is not commonplace in the south west but last year we decided to drastically prune out the leader of each tree to achieve this style. The effect was miraculous. The trees, who had been struggling up on our windy hillside, suddenly found a new lease of life, have put on lots of new growth and have shown us a lot of apples this autumn. This style will also make our apples easy to pick as the trees get larger.
If your orchard is in a well-drained sheltered position, leaving the leader to grow in is just fine and is commonplace for a lot of apple growers. Remove any dead or diseased wood, as well as crossing branches from the canopy, easing congestion. I tend to prune every two years, as the quality of the fruit is not as important as for dessert apples and cider apple trees are fine to be left to it.
If you are thinking of planting an orchard from scratch, here are a few things to consider: Some of my favourite varieties to try are Kingston Black, Dabinett and Yarlington Mill, but with hundreds to choose from some research is required to find the right ones for your requirements. The best orchard floor is managed grass, and a sunny sheltered position is ideal. Grazing sheep does the job for us, but for young trees, guarding is required. Mowing the grass around the trees will work too, but leave the clippings on the ground to act as a mulch. Some growers might grow some white clover beneath the trees as well, for the nitrogen fixing capabilities. I would recommend a 12-foot spacing between trees for smaller varieties, and for a larger longer-term orchard go to 20- to 30-foot. At planting, prune the maiden tree to a good bud about 3 feet above ground level, rubbing out the two buds below as they break in spring. Existing side branches below 2-foot should be cut off flush with the trunk, but those above 2-foot may be retained as part of the first tier of permanent branches. In subsequent springs, the leader may be tipped slightly back to a good growth bud and the two buds below should be rubbed out. This will help more horizontal laterals to break further down, and reduce competition with the leader. Branches that do begin to compete vigorously with the leader should be cut out during the summer.
On the vegetable front at this time of year, I am in love with celeriac! Sounds mad, but despite my evident geekiness I have very good reason. With one of the longest seasons of all the veg, it needs dedicated space and regular attention during the summer months. Keeping young plants weed-free and well-spaced is important, as I find overcrowding really inhibits growth. Sow in February undercover, planting out in May/June at 30cm apart. Planting in fertile soil with consistent moisture should give you good sized celeriac in November. Remove the lower leaves as the stem base develops, allowing swelling and reducing distortion. The most widely available organic variety is Prinz, which I tend to stick to as it offers a medium sized, deliciously sweet winter veg. If you’re looking for something a bit bigger try Giant Prague. Every bit of the celeriac is good to eat. The leaves and roots are delicious deep-fried and salted as a celeriac crisp, and the rest adds a delicious creamy celery flavour to mash, purées, soups and stews.
As the weather becomes more severe, protect tall brassicas from strong winds by staking with a stout stick. Netting can also be useful to protect the precious leaves from hungry pigeons. However, I find a shotgun can be just as effective… Any remaining half-hardy perennials should be brought inside or fleeced on the colder days, protecting them from falling temperatures. November is a good time to plant rhubarb crowns. Space rhubarb two to three feet apart as the crowns will expand quickly. One or two crowns is fine for a family, as they will soon produce loads of stems. My favourite variety is Timperley Early, giving over lots of fruit early in the season.