Life in the November greenhouse

November is change-around month in the greenhouse. Well, at least it’s meant to be.

The trouble is, it’s supposed to be cold, and it just isn’t. We’re still getting double-digit temperatures during the day, and at night though it’s dipping to zero very occasionally and we’re getting some encouraging if short-lived ground frosts (the first, I might add, in two years), it’s more often in the five-to-ten degrees mark. Which means my summer greenhouse crops are still going. A little limply, and not very enthusiastically, perhaps, but definitely still going.

This puts me in a dilemma. Do I rip out the summer plants even though they might still push out an extra tomato or two, or in the case of the peppers ripen another fruit or two? Or do I hang on till the bitter end?

It’s getting to be an urgent decision, too, as this is also salad-planting month in the greenhouse. A couple of years ago I discovered winter salad greenhouse growing and I’ve never looked back: fill the borders in an ordinary six-by-eight greenhouse with young salad plants at this time of year – a couple of dozen lettuces, perhaps some corn salad, mizuna or mustard – and they’ll supply you with bowlfuls of salad right through winter and beyond. I had such a lot the first year I did it that I was giving bags away to friends and family. It is wonderful, just life-affirming to have such plenty in the middle of the coldest, bleakest season of the year. You usually start the salads in around September, sowing into modules or seed trays then potting on to grow in the cold frame or tucked into a corner of the greenhouse. This way you have lovely little sturdy young plants by November, with plenty of strength to cope with cold snaps yet still give you leaves to pick.

Sow them direct in November and your seeds may germinate, but they’ll still hunker down and stop growing if it gets really cold. When a young plant stops growing, you can still pick its leaves, if sparingly; if a seedling stops growing you have no choice but to wait till it starts again, even if that’s not till February. So quite often if you sow winter salads too late, you don’t get anything to pick till early spring.

But this year I got a bit sidetracked in September and only managed to sow a bit of pak choi and some ‘Merveille de Quatre Saisons’ lettuce, and the slugs ate all but one of the latter.

So I’ve been terribly lazy. I bought in mixed salad plug plants, ready to plant out straight away: the perfect gardener’s cheat, and one I fall back on without the slightest twinge of guilt as it’s actually the sensible thing to do. Plug plants are a brilliant invention and take away a lot of the time, disappointment and general hassle you spend on raising things from seed.

The trouble is, the greenhouses were still full when they arrived on my doorstep. Time for some tough decisions.

A couple of things were easy: the cucumbers were looking very sorry for themselves by now so I snipped off the last few fruits and pulled them up. The tomatilloes, too, had done their stuff so I harvested the big fat fruits for making salsa (freezing the surplus for later use) and pulled up the plants. The aubergines went: they have been an abject failure this year as though they were lovely big healthy plants and set flowers, none turned into fruits. It’s a bit of a mystery, though I suspect a pollination problem.

The peppers and chillies however are still definitely ripening and I just can’t bring myself to pull them up in full fruit. So the lettuces are having to snuggle up to some slightly unconventional bed partners, for the time being at least. It does mean I’ve had to concede about a quarter of the available growing space, but this way I get the best of both worlds: lovely sweet red ‘Snackbite’ peppers and crunchy fresh salads, and all within a bauble’s throw of Christmas. Not bad.

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