Day 311: pear trees

This is fruit country, and when it’s not, it’s nut country. Driving through the lanes of Kent, you’re rarely far from a cobnut platt or an orchard…

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The dying of the light

Have you ever loved something with great intensity, whilst all the while wishing you could change just one thing about it? Of course you have. That’s how I am with Autumn. I have a strong emotional connection to this time of year, from the earliest signs of its approach with those first morning mists at the end of August, which send a shudder of relief through my whole frame. But barely at the mid point of September, and it’s already dark before eight, getting earlier each day. I could do without that.

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The bonfire of deplorables

Autumn turns to winter, the leaves are all but tamed, and a short window of opportunity opens. While it’s still warm enough feel your fingers, there’s just time to clear the beds in preparation for a good, thick mulch. But what to do with all the stuff this produces – compost, or burn? It helps to have a plan.

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Getting on with it

Not long now till many of our trees, shrubs and perennials divest themselves of their foliage before swooning into a hibernal slumber. Meanwhile, less glamourous things – semi-evergreen, hardy biennial and annual things – are quietly going about their business, apparently unfazed by the drama, while we pass them by..

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Taking steps

Autumn, windy and mild, with no sign of a frost. The leaves, like embers in slow motion, glow brightly as they fall, fast fading to dull ash grey and brown. Much of the garden’s energy retreats below ground at this time of year and, with a good proportion of the season’s growth now lying either upon the compost heap or the bonfire, access into the borders becomes considerably more straightforward. Conversely, passage through the garden becomes increasingly difficult. The winding grass path, charmingly informal throughout spring and summer, has by mid November become a muddy cart track, rutted and slippery, making each trip through the garden a messy and potentially hazardous affair.

O, for a red brick path! Solid under foot, and easy on the eye. Throughout my various excavations in the garden, I’ve managed to unearth a small pile of imperial red bricks in fair condition, but nowhere near the quantity I’d need for the path. I keep a beady eye out for the small ads, and auctions of reclaimed bricks on eBay, but somehow, something more pressing and grown up always seems to require paying for – a new boiler, or a replacement cross-member for the chassis on the venerable land rover. Even – dare I say it – plants. And in the meanwhile, sure as eggs is eggs, the path turns to mush.

This winter, I’m taking steps to avoid the quagmire. A roll of grass reinforcement mesh – the kind of stuff you find lurking just beneath the sward of the overflow car park at a country fair – which I unrolled and immediately split down the middle with the aid of a pair of tin snips.

Snip. Figured I only needed a 50mm strip down the centre of the path
A hideously cheerful, bright glossy green – quite revolting – but thankfully grass has already begun to grow up through the holes, and is doing a fair job of obscuring the playground-bright colour. With at least another three months of potential sogginess before us, it’s early to form a definitive opinion but, so far, I am impressed by the difference it’s made. No substitute for my lovely brick path. But, while I’m pining for that, at least I can get to the end of the garden and back.

Not pretty, but already disappearing

Covered in bees*

The alliterative first line of Keats’ ode To Autumn gets bandied about with predicatable regularity at this time of year. And quite rightly too; it may be bordering upon cliché, but were there a more apt, evocative or economic description of the time of year now being ushered in than “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, I’m sure we’d all be using it. But, for the past week or so, it’s the passage at the end of the first stanza that I keep thinking of, those lines that describe the bees making the absolute most of the late-season flowers, drunk on nectar and basking in the late sun before returning to hives dripping with honey after the summer’s generosity.

This mental picture seems particularly apposite just now. The radio tells me we’re enjoying the driest September since 1960, while my ears tell me that the bees are certainly taking advantage of the weather. When out walking Bill in the fields I pass between two ivy-clad columns – heaven only knows what trees are providing the structural support, the climber is all-encompassing and glossy with luxuriant mature foliage, in full flower and cacophanous with all manner of flying insects. I identify wasps, several kinds of bee and hover flies among the cloud of voracious activity, before deciding to retreat to a safer distance. They all look perfectly preoccupied, but the sound is slightly intimidating, and I don’t really fancy hanging around in case the general mood should suddenly change.

Back in the garden, the dahlias continue to romp away in the borders, the asters are coming into flower and, while most of the lavender has now been cut back, there are a few patches which we’ve deliberately left. All of these late flowers seem to be enormously appreciated by the bees, our most welcome neighbours, and in a year when the plight of the bumble bee continues to be a serious concern, their presence in our garden in such enthusiastic crowds is both welcome and encouraging.

We’ve no immediate plans to have hives of our own, happy for the time being to let others do the hard work; it’s far less bothersome to get one’s honey from a jar, rather than a wooden box full of buzzing insects. In the meantime, I’m more than content that while we didn’t set out to plant a ‘bee friendly’ garden, by virtue of that fact that it’s brimming with flowers, that’s exactly what we have.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
and still more, later flowers for the bees
So that they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells. 
from To Autumn by John Keats, 1819

Some bee related links:

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust
Friends of the Earth’s Bee Cause campaign page
The British Beekeepers’ Association

*The title for this post came to mind from a sketch from Eddie Izzard’s Glorious tour. Maybe not Keats, but more belly laughs.

A grey day, with berries

Hips of the dog rose in the morning mist

It’s gloomy outside – the kind of day that words like ‘dank’ and ‘drear’ were invented for. But peering through the nullifying fog that hangs heavy in the air, cancelling out familiar views and making us feel like strangers in our own gardens, something rich and rather magnificent calls for attention. Winking, jewel-like clusters of opulent splendour, fat with food for the birds and creatures who share our autumn gardens, the berries take centre stage at this time of year, bringing colour and joy to our surroundings when all around is fading into winter gloom.

In many a garden the scene is stolen by always reliable pyracanthas and cotoneasters, with their showy displays in fiery oranges, yellows and reds, though there are many other genera to choose from when it comes to stocking the garden with berrying plants. The rowan, or mountain ash Sorbus aucuparia, is a wonderful tree suitable for a small garden. Providing year-round interest with its pinnate leaves which turn a rich red in autumn, its slightly bitter berries are used to make rowan jam, a traditional accompaniment to venison and other gamey dishes. Climbing plants, too, make a valuable contribution to the garden’s berry quota: honeysuckle, bittersweet Celastrus orbiculatus, and of course, ivy, with its understated black fruits nestling amongst the mature, shiny leaves.

If I have a guilty secret to confess to as a gardener, it’s that I’m not as fond of roses as I feel I ought to be – other than at this time of year when most of the leaves have fallen. Now the plants are revealed as thorny skeletons with plump, bright hips: some smooth and long, others large and round as a tomato, as with R. rugosa. Appropriately, Bill seems particularly partial to the fallen hips of the dog rose R. canina that arches over the garden gate and so, having first done a little research to ensure these were harmful to neither man nor hound, I decided to try one myself. No wonder then that people make jam from these. They’re practically ready-made jam: thick, sickly fruity goo – one hip was almost too rich a meal – which explains why our winter garden visitors find them such a rich source of food.

But it is in the hedgerows that my favourite berries lurk. Bright red berries of holly and yew against glossy, dark green foliage, dusky blue sloes on the blackthorn, orange-red gems of the guelder rose and the garish fruits of the winged spindle, whose vivid, pink cruciform capsules split open to reveal bright orange seeds. Now is the time to get out into the garden and make the most of the berries. Before the birds beat you to it.

Yellow berries on the firethorn Pyracantha ‘Soleil D’Or’

Mature ivy plants provide a good habitat in which wildlife can overwinter,
as well as berries which are a rich source of food.

Holly, the heraldic symbol for truth, and traditionally a wood for  making
bagpipes. But used more often by overwintering birds for food and shelter.

The rowan tree Sorbus aucuparia provides year round interest,
including fantastic autumnal shades

Thinking ahead

Bank Holiday Monday dawns bright and clear in spite of last week’s heavy rain, but I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that the evenings are drawing in with frankly indecent haste. While the arrival of Bill the puppy last weekend has taken a toll on domestic routine, on those occasions I have managed to escape the furry but demanding cuteness for my morning run there’s been a noticeable freshness in the air. Autumn is on its way, and now is a good time start thinking ahead – beyond late summer, beyond even Christmas and the bleakness of winter – about how we want our borders to fill out in spring.

It might seem a bit premature, but a plant grown from seed sown direct into the final flowering position over the next few weeks will have a distinct head start over seeds of the same plant sown in spring. Now, with the memory of this spring still fresh, we’re ideally placed to devise and execute a plan for plugging any gaps which we noticed in our gardens earlier in the year.

The idea is to select seeds – largely, but not exclusively hardy annuals – which when sown will germinate and grow away now, developing sufficiently to survive the onset of winter. Then, shaking off dormancy in spring, their already well-established root system will allow them to romp ahead of plants started in March or April as soon as the growing light allows, attaining a flowering size and sturdiness of structure far greater than their later-sown cousins.

So much for the theory, the fun part comes in choosing what to plant, so I’ve dug out the seeds catalogues – notably Sarah Raven’s, which has a great selection of flowers, vegetables and herb seeds, together with some excellent advice on the accompanying website – and made a shopping list:

1. Ammi majus (Bishop’s Flower) - a lovely cow-parsley like umbellifer that gives clouds of frothy floral interest without too much weighty foliage.

2. Erisimum chieri. Just because the scent of wall flowers always stops me in my tracks and transports me back to the front garden of the North London terrace in which I grew up. Something deep red probably: I like the look of E. chieri ‘Vulcan’.

3. Eschscholzia californica. The Californian poppy, a bright orange, cheerful little edging plant with fern-like foliage. Self-seeds merrily about the place.

4. Scabiosa atropurpurea ‘Black Cat’. A dark purple version of the Pin Cushion flower – small, tight pom-poms on the end of long, thin stems. You could imagine an orchestral percussionist playing a kettle-drum with them. Maybe.

5. Euphorbia oblongata. This perennial has the typical hooded flowers of the euphorbia, in a zingy chartreuse green. Another great filler, fantastic for cutting.

6. Gaura lindheimeri ‘The Bride’. A beautiful, delicate plant which looks amazing in drifts. Shorter than the species, the opening buds cluster along the stems like small, dusky pink butterflies before emerging white. I’ve not grown this from seed before!

7. Calendula officinalis ‘Indian Prince’. Just a cheerful, sunshiney big orange daisy like flower with a black centre. With all the associated herbal properties of the pot marigold, the petals are tasty in salads or to be used as a saffron substitute in cooking. Great for companion planting in the veg garden too, deterring pests on tomatoes and asparagus.

8. Briza maxima. Greater quaking grass, this carries its gentle, nodding flower heads like so many tiny paper lanterns. Great for cutting and drying.

9. Nigella papillosa ‘African Bride’. We have a lovely, pale blue version of Nigella damascena Love-in-the-Mist, but this cultivar looks quite exotic with white petals and black, horned seed pods. I wonder if they’ll hybridise, and if so, whose genes will win out?

10. Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’. Another daisy-like flower. We already have the larger species in a purplish pink, but to grow these lovely perennial cone flowers from seed will be quite something. I find the combination of the tactile stems, the spiky central cone and the apple white petals incredibly beautiful, especially when the flowers are just opening.

Can it really be this simple? Just ten packets of seed at two quid each, and a little work preparing the soil, keeping the weeds off and thinning the seedlings – if nothing else, this will save a fortune compared with buying plants from the nursery next year. My biggest problem is going to be limiting myself to the ten plants I’ve listed!