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19. The Wonder of Autumn

We have written before in general about being aware of the Seasons but I note when we came to autumn we were very circumspect (short!). Of course on Rochford Life we also have the ‘Seasons’ pages where we highlight the things that tend to go on each month of the year, but this is a garden page or as we put it less grandly a ‘Growing Stuff’ page. So, some ponderings as a gardener as autumn approaches. Let’s handle it as past, present and future.

The Past: First of all the approach of autumn is a time for looking back. The one thing I try to do is learn from what has gone. So how did it go this summer? In the last article in ‘Growing Stuff’ we suggested that any gardener needs to be a stoic and you learn to grin and bear your failures as well as rejoice over your successes. But as you look back on the season that has just been and in conversation reflect on how dry it has been overall, despite the occasional torrential rain, I mutter I really must get over to the allotment and water more! Then I think about the council’s free recycled compost handout and reflect (as many on the Internet agree) that it is excellent for breaking up heavy clay ground but not so wonderful at providing nutrients it seems. Less freebie handouts and more compost bins and more sacks from local stables and more long term composting is the lesson from this last year.

The Present: Getting rid of summer, I find as an amateurish gardener, is a slight relief. Now I can get down to the business of actually getting on with the garden without all the distractions of going away on holidays, having people to stay, having to do barbecues and all those other things the stop you getting on with the serious business of keeping the garden in order. Of course autumn is not so much the time of keeping it in order as putting it back in order. Mother Nature left to herself is thoroughly untidy. Trees, bushes and shrubs have all grown out of shape and look messy and untidy and the Hercule Poirot tidiness gene in me objects.  I started summer with such a nice orderly looking garden and by September, look what a shambles it has become!

Having listened to all those who say you must leave your bulb plants until the flower has gone and the leaves are now dying, the gladioli mock me, the enormous dahlia’s snigger and say, just wait until the first frost comes and we turn black, you’ll be sorry you were so slow on tidying us up! And the geraniums that started so neat and tidy and clean looking, and which provided such wonderful colour throughout the summer, now need their dead stalks picking off and indeed lifting and putting under glass if I am to preserve them for next year. And as for tomato plants and runner bean plants, they compete to see who can look the most straggly and messy. But, hey, they might produce that little bit more yet before the month is out, so I might wait a bit longer. And there are those various plants that positively sneer at us as my wife and I look at their refusal to grow and we utter a plaintive, “Well perhaps we just put them in too late”, but we know we didn’t; they just didn’t want to do well this year. Stiff upper lip time!

It’s autumn, it’s clean-up time, which makes me wonder sometimes am I a little like detective Adrian Monk with his OCD, because cleaning up the garden is so pleasurable! Yes, getting on top of this shambles of a garden that Mother Nature has made it, is really pleasurable. Clearing away the dead and dying, pruning back that which has overgrown and just looks plain untidy, all of this is immensely satisfying. Seeing a vegetable patch where the earth is pristine clear of every weed is a good feel.  Deciding what plants need lifting or dividing and what ones just need throwing away, it’s all part of the wonder of arranging a garden and seeing it change like a kaleidoscope from decade to decade. Yes, although changes will take place from year to year, I notice that the big ones often take a little longer. In one of those quiet reflective moments last summer, when sitting under a tree in the shade surveying what as around me, I noted that we have been here quite a long time and so as I look around and think back I realised that at least 95% of what I could see in what we call ‘our garden’ was not here when we moved in. That was a satisfying feeling because we like what we have now. Such is the joy of long-term gardening. That’s not to say it will stay like it is.

The Future: Garden Centres and Gardening magazines won’t let you rest on your laurels. There is a year ahead. Yes, we’ve got to weather the winter (literally) but there will be a spring to follow that.  Bulbs fill dozens of boxes in all the garden centres we frequent, just screaming out to be taken to create something new next year. We need planting NOW, they shout. Just yesterday we saw a box containing the biggest Amaryllis bulbs I’ve ever seen, at least six inches in diameter, with a price to match.  Of course Amaryllis bulbs are the ideal Christmas present or just good for providing a January spectacle indoors for ourselves – we usually have at least two if not three, they are so wonderful at brightening up the world in the middle of winter. But we looked at these massive bulbs and wondered, “Will they really and truly produce massive flowers or even more stalks?” We chickened out and moved on, but if anyone would like to buy me one I’d be willing to see what happens. It will also be a time for buying (possibly made up pots of) crocuses and hyacinths for indoor growing over the Christmas period.

But what about bulbs generally? I have a love-hate relationship with them. Some people (say Monty Don) talk about lifting them every season. The trouble is that when I do that I put them away in the potting shed and forget they are there. I came across a basket full of small bulbs I had lifted from a bed I was cleaning up a year ago; they have completely missed a season! The other thing about bulb plants is, as I observed earlier, they hang around and look messy, even if you do the proper thing and fold over the leaves and tie them like that while the goodness goes back into multiplying the bulbs in the ground. I complain about them and yet the snowdrops, the daffodils and narcissi, the tulips and the gladioli have all played a part in providing a wonderful display this year. More bulbs for next spring? I’m not sure, but I must stay away from the garden centres because the temptation is quite strong.

Well, I’m sure there is much more I could ramble about – and I’m only writing because the dark and dank and soggy day is stopping me getting out there and going the stuff. I’ve steered clear of rambling on about the wonderful colours of autumn leaves and the sense of getting ready to be tucked up warmly indoors as winter will eventually arrive, because this has been about us and our gardens. The rest you can see on the seasonable pages.  Enjoy the coming weeks of autumn in your garden and may you have the enjoyments I’ve hinted at, and as you go out there and tell your garden who’s boss.  Kid yourself not!  Do nothing for six months and your garden will give you the answer!   In the meantime you can at least play at being boss. Enjoy!