A five-minute fix for growing tastier, healthier veg

Sprinkle Epsom salts on to your soil to enhance the health and flavour of your winter crops

I may never learn to love the dark days of winter, but the wonderful thing about horticulture is that there is always a silver lining, particularly if you are a veg grower. Even as many plants around us slide into dormancy, there is a range of winter veg that can be planted now and which will look after itself for months at a time. Not only are these arguably the easiest of all seasonal crops to grow, but with a simple five-minute trick of mine you could also make them measurably tastier and more nutritious than most of what you can buy in the shops.

Autumn-planting onion and shallot sets are in stores everywhere right now and, once planted according to packet instructions in a well-tended bed, should require almost zero intervention from you until harvest. The same deal applies to garlic and a little known fourth member of the family, the echalote grise, also called (rather confusingly) the French grey shallot. Although neither French nor a shallot, this is in my opinion the finest flavoured of all the onion family. Spring onions can, likewise, be sown now from seed for harvesting from late winter to early spring.


The slow pleasures and melancholy of autumn gardening

Fading light and failing growth brings its own beauty to the garden

So the autumn equinox is over, October mere hours away. I know I have been banging on about fading light now for a month, but it is no longer deniable. This morning saw the last pre-7am sunrise until we return to GMT – and then it’s only temporarily.

I don’t want to sound like a harbinger of doom and dark, though I’ll admit to some seasonal melancholy. I watch the slowing of September seed now sluggish in its growth. Plants that surged only a month or so before are struggling a little more.


Ode to autumn: a Victorian garden is returned to its handsome roots

How the naturalistic gardens at Gravetye Manor were restored with a vibrant nod to their past

The gardener William Robinson, Gravetye Manor’s most notable owner, once wrote that if you arranged hardy, handsome plants “with some judgment at first… the owner might go away for 10 years; and find it more beautiful than ever on his return”. Current head gardener Tom Coward might disagree; he has been in the job nearly a decade and is only now starting to see the garden restored to its former glory.

Coward arrived from Great Dixter house and gardens in 2010, when Gravetye’s current owners took over, and discovered there was a lot to do. The historic house and garden, in West Hoathly, Sussex, had fallen into disrepair: “Seedlings were appearing in the borders, and the kitchen garden had such a weed problem, it was a case of having to dig it up and start again,” says Coward, who trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and RHS garden Wisley. But despite its problems, the garden “was clearly beautiful”, he says.


Eggshell and copper tape do not protect veg from slugs and snails

Gardeners using methods like these to protect against gastropods are wasting their time, study shows

Environmentally friendly gardeners who attempt to deter slugs and snails from devouring their vegetables with eggshells or copper tape are wasting their time, according to a study by the Royal Horticultural Society.

Gastropods inflicted the same damage to lettuces protected with five natural methods – eggshells, copper tape, horticultural grit, pine bark mulch and wool pellets – as they did to lettuces left untreated.

Related: Say goodbye to slugs, snails, mice and badgers


Ye olde gardening myths worth ignoring

Old tools are best? Try cutting your hedge with your grandad’s shears, once you’ve sharpened them and if you can lift them

Gardening is bound up in nostalgia, with images of rustic Victorian kitchen plots and people scything meadows creating the impression the world of horticulture is a period drama. And while many traditions are backed by science, some may be more of a hindrance. Here are the three pieces of received horticultural wisdom I hear most frequently – and which don’t stand the test of time.

In many cases non-native plants provide better food and habitat for our wildlife than natives


Magic, logic, gardening and the lunar calendar

Cold hard facts only get you so far on the allotment

I believe in magic beans. I carry three (or more) with me always. It was an accident at first. They were left over from seed sowing, purple-podded ‘Trail of Tears’. I found them in a jacket pocket, smooth, rounded, reassuring.

After a while I transferred them from jacket to jacket, my fingers sometimes searching them out, tumbling them around, a caressing of luck. A connection with wonder, perhaps. Later, they found their way into my jeans, became constant companions.


How to grow new plants from cuttings

It’s free and easy. Here’s how

It is a simple, but magical, act: take a little bit of stem and, with a few careful cuts, create a new plant. That magic, the ebb and flow of hormones and auxins, is on your side: once severed of its root, the plant is desperate to take hold again. All you have to do is give it a go. Right now, the window for semi-ripe cuttings is drawing to a close, but it is not shut: this weekend, for 15 minutes’ worth of effort, you can take those tired lavenders that have become leggy, or that woody rosemary, and strike a few cuttings so you have new plants for spring for free. Hyssop, thyme, bay, sage, lemon verbena, rue, scented pelargoniums, penstemons and verbenas are suitable for semi-ripe cuttings.

Related: How to grow wildflowers | Alys Fowler


Gardening tips: how to plant agapanthus

Plus why you should visit the gardens at Down House and check that your water butt is working

Plant this The heatwave was perfect for agapanthus, which love a well-drained, sunny spot and flower until the first frosts. Some can suffer in winter, so protect with a deep mulch post-flowering. Violet-blue ‘Northern Star’ is deciduous, but hardier than most; semi-evergreen ‘White Heaven’ produces large flower heads.

Visit this The gardens at Down House, near Sevenoaks in Kent, were Charles Darwin’s outdoor laboratory. Visitors can stroll through the greenhouses where he conducted experiments and take a turn on the “thinking path” walk around the estate. Open daily; details at english-heritage.org.uk/darwin.