ASK a gardener what his single best acquisition was and the reply will inevitably be “the greenhouse.”

But quiz most — including me — if they make the most of the cosseted environment and they will undoubtedly admit that they don’t.

Summer tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and aubergines are top of the summer crops, but as we fade from autumn into winter the poor old greenhouse tends to get forgotten until we spring into springtime.

Unless, that is, you are Alan Stroud or one of the growing band of green-fingered enthusiasts who realise the value of using a greenhouse all year.

Isle of Wight County Press:

Alan's still productive beefsteak tomatoes, leeks and strawberries.

Broad beans, of course, can be sown now in the greenhouse to give them a head start outdoors and protect them from mice who love the germinating seed when the beansprouts are at their most succulent and nutritious.

Peas too can be sown to over-winter to be planted out to give an early crop of the sweetest of vegetables.

Even at this time of year, greenhouses are so much more than propagation staging posts for the great outdoors. Alan likes to use one of his to extend harvest seasons.

Most gardeners would propagate cabbage between March and June, which would mean they would now be over. but, by leaving it later in the protected greenhouse environment it is possible to extend harvest throughout winter to include Christmas cabbage.

Alan chose the reliable old favourite Greyhound which, if planted outdoors, produces early-maturing, pointed hearts in summer and autumn.

This flavoursome cabbage has little core and very few wasted outer leaves and is particularly compact — ideal where space is at a premium, such as indoors, where it is also protected from pests.

Isle of Wight County Press:

Greyhound cabbages and what remains of blighted potatoes.

Pea shoots (very fashionable these days) can be harvested indoors in spring if planted now.

If you have a solid floor rather than beds, growing bags used for summer crops can be utilised for salad crops by cutting out all the top plastic and freshening-up by pulling out some of the old roots and adding a few handfuls of new compost.

Being sheltered from extremes a greenhouse will produce more tender lettuce leaves.

Try the large ‘butterhead’ variety Arctic King. Outdoors it produces tasty light green heads with crinkled leaves for harvesting in spring. Much earlier indoors.

But, Alan’s under-cover exploits have not been without problems.

While his beefsteak tomatoes escaped the blight which devastated his outdoor crop, and are still producing somewhat anemic tasting toms in one greenhouse — and he still has a few very late strawberries — his indoor spuds in the other ‘house have been disastrous.

“Luckily the greenhouse toms somehow escaped it. If only the late spuds did,” he says. “I planted one of the greenhouses with cabbage and potatoes in early September and the potatoes showed almost immediately and grew like wildfire, but you can’t win.

“They have all got blight as we speak. It remains to be seen what’s under the blackened leaves. Not much, I’ll guess.”

So, there won’t be much Christmas new potato cheer in the Stroud household this year, but he will have a few leeks, rescued by his greenhouse.

"I sowed leeks this year, some in trays and some in the ground, just as I’ve always done. I planted them out when they were pencil-sized, just as I’ve always done, but now they’re not much bigger than the day I set them out. Never known leeks to fail before but I have put some in the greenhouse...

“Better using the greenhouses all came about through my wife, Sue, watching YouTube videos of how people use them all through the winter — another tip I’ve only just latched onto, 50 years too late.”

You say that, Alan, but never too late for old dogs, and all that...”

RICHARD'S TOP TIPS

  • Prepare to insulate your outdoor containers from frosts, using hessian or bubble wrap held in place with garden twine, if cold weather is forecast.
  • There may be plenty of berries on the holly now, but birds will soon have their fill. Cut a few stems in the next couple of weeks for making Christmas garlands. Stand them in a bucket of water in a sheltered spot hidden from our hungry avian friends.
  • Prepare a bed for planting autumn garlic and onion sets. Improve heavy soils with organic matter before planting.
  • Spread fresh manure or seaweed across the surface of your vegetable beds to rot down over winter. Seaweed, especially, will act as a weed suppressant, particularly if covered with a tarpaulin.
  • Prune apple and pear trees anytime between now and February. Leave plum and damson until summer when disease is less likely to enter cuts because the trees will ‘bleed’.

Have you got a gardening question for Richard? If so, you can email him on richryde@tiscali.co.uk