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