WE are now in the last month of autumn and there is plenty to you keep busy in the garden.

In the fruit garden, harvest is coming to an end for pip and stone fruit and is full swing for feijoas. May is also the last chance to get your bulbs in the flower garden before winter, and a great time to plant new winter veges in the vege patch.

Smaller shrubs such as azaleas, hebes and gardenias can be transplanted this month. It’s a good time to move conifers too.

In cool climates think about frost protection for the coming months. Move vulnerable plants to a more protected position – on a covered verandah, indoors or into a glasshouse. Put three or four stakes around outdoor plants that are susceptible to frost and wrap with bubble wrap or similar.

May is getting a bit late to sow most veges but cold-hardy broad beans are fine. In fact, those planted in May will quickly catch up to earlier plantings, though none will produce much in the way of pods until the weather warms up a bit in spring.

And May is a good month for spinach. In New Zealand silver beet is often called “spinach”, but confusing these two is a bit like mistaking fake grass for lawn. True spinach has a smooth, delicate flavour that blends well with other mild foods, while silver beet’s stronger taste sometimes overwhelms more delicate flavours.

Spinach is rich in Vitamins A and B and lots of other health-promoting nutrients. It is a versatile vege and can be used as a side vegetable or in soups and salads. With its delicate flavour, spinach can be added to egg dishes such as omelettes and quiches.

Spinach loves the cold, so it’s one of the most popular vege choices for autumn sowing. Spinach grows readily from seed and the variety called “Winter Queen” is ideal for this time of year.

Spinach seeds are best sown straight into a ready-prepared garden bed. That way you avoid the transplant shock that can set the seedlings back when you move them from seedling pots into the garden.

Spinach prefers a rich, rather heavy soil so dig in plenty of organic matter such as compost or aged animal manure before sowing, which will sweeten the soil to the spinach’s liking.

Make sure there is plenty of nitrogen in the soil by adding some blood and bone.

Spinach seeds are a good size so are fairly easy to handle. Sow clumps of two or three seeds and water well. Germination takes between one and three weeks, depending on weather conditions. When they are big enough remove excess seedlings, keeping only the strongest in each clump.

Make sure the spinach doesn’t dry out and feed it every couple of weeks with a soluble plant food such as liquid seaweed, which is high in nitrogen and will keep the plants growing as fast as possible.

Pest problems are few with spinach but watch out for slugs and snails – they will annihilate your seedlings over night. Commercial slug and snail pellets will help keep these pests at bay but if you don’t want to use pellets you could create a protective wall for each plant by cutting the top and bottom off a plastic bottle.

Place the plastic cylinder over the plant and push it into the soil so the seedling is completely surrounded. A layer of mulch will help keep the moisture around the root area and will also, by reducing mud splash when watering, keep the leaves cleaner. Or you could make a couple of beer baits and place them around the garden.

Well fed and well watered spinach grows quite fast and can be ready to pick in as little as eight to 10 weeks. Growth may be slower in colder areas.

A recent addition to the seed range has been “Baby Leaf Spinach”. This variety, pictured below, has been bred to produce small, tender leaves that are eaten raw in salads. It is even faster growing and can be ready to harvest in six to seven weeks.

Spinach should be cooked gently. Boiling will destroy much of its food value so, instead, it is far better to wash the leaves and lightly steam them using the remnants of the washing water to provide moisture. If cooked this way spinach will retain much of its goodness.

Brighten winter gardens with colourful perennials

WINTER is the time for colourful perennials in the garden.

Perennials are the “backbone” of the flower garden. Unlike the bright and flamboyant annuals, perennials will last for at least three years and often much longer.

Because they’ll be in the garden for such a long time, it’s vital to spend some time preparing the planting spot. Most perennials prefer an open, sunny position in the garden, but there are some exceptions. Liliums, for example, do well in a morning sun/afternoon shade aspect in most areas, but will grow happily in full sun in cooler climates.

The majority of perennials enjoy good drainage but there are some that deviate from this pattern. Arum lily Green Goddess will grow in a wet spot, and astilbe, with its feathery plumes of summer flowers, also likes damp feet.

Before planting perennials in the garden, add some organic matter to enrich the soil. Old manure, your own ready-prepared compost, or organic sheep pellets are all suitable. They will also appreciate some lime mixed into the planting spot.There are many other perennials that will suit almost any garden.

Achillea is a very hardy plant that grows to about 50cm, with heads of tiny flowers clustered on top of the stems. It’s a rapid grower that may need dividing each year.

Violets – the traditional clumping violet is often left to languish in a shady corner but, if planted in an open, sunny spot, it will produce a much better show of perfumed flowers.