September and October in the Algarve mark the start of autumn. Unlike Northern Europe, this does not mark the end of the gardening year, in some ways it marks the beginning. The days grow progressively shorter, the nights cooler and the level of humidity gradually increases.
When the rain does eventually come, don’t be fooled into thinking the first downpour means no more watering. The days can still be very hot and autumn winds have a dramatic drying effect on the soil. If you still have summer crops in the garden, you will probably still need to be watering, sometimes right through November.
In time, you come to realise instinctively whether to water or not. If you are unsure, use a trowel to check the depth of moisture in the soil and amend as necessary.
Most gardens still contain summer crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers aubergines, zucchini and so on. As a general rule of thumb, these can remain in the garden and continue being productive until the first frosts or cold snaps get to them. Heavy rainfall can also rot off many plants.
Sweet peppers – although quite delicate when young, peppers seem to be very sturdy by the autumn. I have known them to still be standing and the peppers turning red in the December sunshine in Monchique!
Tomatoes – try to keep the branches tied up away from wet soil. If they are in a good sunny spot, they can go on producing new fruit until the cooler nights (below 15 Celsius) stop the fruit setting. Remember to squash a couple of ripe tomatoes into the soil ready for next year’s plants.
Sweet potatoes – if we have a dry autumn, flood the beds every four to five days. They should be dug up by early November and left in a warm, humid room for two weeks. This helps to sweeten the tubers even more and helps them to store longer. They can then be put into boxes and kept in a cool (not cold) room, where they will keep until next June.
Most of the Algarve markets – definitely the Monday markets – now have a stall with someone selling seedlings ready for transplanting. You can’t miss these stalls – a vibrant green meadow surrounded by a jostling mob of cloth capped elderly men, all with a differing opinion on the quality of the seedlings on offer.
September is a perfect time to put in plants from the cabbage family. Remember to give them lots of space and avoid acid soil. In a good year, a cabbage or cauliflower crop can be produced without any watering, apart from the first week or so as they settle in. Cabbages, cauliflower and broccoli can be planted right through the winter, but I find the autumn crop is far more productive for a minimum amount of work. Another good trouble free crop to put in now is lettuce, which will be ready for eating in a couple of months.
The markets are also a good source for peas and broad beans for sowing. In a good year, there is sufficient rainfall to meet all their needs and they make a fantastic crop for the lazy gardener.
Next month, we will take a detailed look at how to grow them, along with recipe and storage ideas.
A final word of warning
All of the vegetables mentioned above, plus turnips, swedes, carrots and winter radish can be sown successfully in winter. However, you do need to take care as to where and when you sow them. Choose the sowing time carefully.
December and January are the coldest months and the least successful. The soil needs to be warm and moist but not waterlogged. I tend to wait for a rainy spell to end; after three or four days, the soil should be dried out enough and sufficiently warm for sowing. Choose a place that is not exposed to cold winds, gets plenty of sunshine and is convenient enough for you to keep a regular eye on.