The approach of autumn

John Downie
John Downie
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WHISPER it softly but there is more than the calendar telling this fellow that autumn is quietly creeping up on us.

All of the senses have picked up undeniable signs over the past couple of weeks.

Swallows are practising roll call for migration, mushrooms are appearing in the fields and along the bridleways hips, haws and sloes are beginning to ripen.

Swallows have nested in a tack room at the stables for years and this one is no different.

They gain entry through a small opening so the daily door-locking does not inhibit their movements, and trusting as they are, the nest is always accessible allowing us to monitor progress.

The second brood of five is just changing from the fluffy nest-bound stage into sleek flying machines that will soon explore new lands.

With this in mind, large chattering groups of fledglings are presently congregating on the farmyard wires. The countdown has definitely started.

Fields that have held animals or currently do so seem to be home to natural mushroom crops every autumn, reference the people with local knowledge taking early morning walks in such areas.

I’m sure the animal manure output is a key to success, more-so if there’s an equine presence.

Indeed, years ago a horse roamed the garden of our present home, and to this day mushrooms pop up in the lawn around mid-September. This is one reason why it is never treated with a selective weed killer.

Furthermore, the fields in which horses are turned out occasionally offer rich pickings.

Most of the time it’s the common field or button mushrooms but last week a different type, but no less tasty with bacon and eggs, turned up. Difficult to miss because of the size, it is commonly called the plate mushroom.

Out in the countryside rose hips are ripening fast alongside a tremendous crop of haws, and the sloe gin appreciation society will soon be out in force collecting fruits of the blackthorn.

One blackbird, who could not wait for the official announcement of autumn, was seen feasting on large rugosa rose hips which shone out like a beacon – those in preference to clusters of rowan fruits just as ripe.

There is a slight chill on the evening air and a noticeable change in day-length.

That most reliable of wake-up calls, the dawn chorus, could have given Status Quo a run for their money just a few weeks ago but has now become little more than a whimper.

Our most reliable autumn indicator of all is 25 year-old crab apple tree, Malus John Downie. It crops regularly and the fruits are large and green with a distinctive red flush.

When it decides that summer is over they are jettisoned and cover the ground like a carpet – as now.

What does the onset of autumn mean to this gardener?

It is certainly not a time for gloom or inactivity. There are very satisfying fruit and vegetable crops to harvest, salvage operations to undertake and lots of opportunities for propagation.

Up to now Victoria plums, tomatoes and apples have been picked as they matured and that will continue alongside the ripening grapes but the decision to clear the deck is not far off.

By mid-September the plum tree will be stripped of fruit, which, with the stones removed, will be bagged up for freezing.

Tomatoes that presently stand on vines almost bereft of leaves will be harvested and laid out on the greenhouse bench. The plant stems are chopped up and deposited in the compost area, whilst the spent growing medium is broadcast over the vegetable beds as a soil conditioner. Recycling at its best.

Even the smallest green tomatoes will ripen when spread out on newspaper in a spare room but they can also be turned into delicious chutney.

Thankfully all apple varieties do not ripen at the same time. Discovery is first to do so for us in mid August, then a month later `James Grieve` matures. However, `Jonagold` can stand on the tree until late October. Where there is a modest crop and some fruits are handed on to friends, regular picking obviates the need to store, but any excess survives best when boxed up and offered a cool, airy environment. The old tomato boxes were ideal for this, with vertical projections in each corner that allowed air to circulate when stacked. And although the idea of wrapping fruits individually is sound enough, I prefer to leave them exposed to the air which simplifies checking for deterioration in store. This also ensures that you are greeted by the sweetest fragrance whenever the storeroom is entered.

When potato foliage is on the wane it is a signal that the growing is over and the time is right to lift the crop. Leaving them in the soil will only lead to slug damage. It is high time they were dried off and tubers stored along with the ripe onions. Sound tubers can go into bags but the onion bulbs are best either woven into a string or secured individually by knots in tights discarded by the lady of the house.

Propagation is the other immediate concern of this gardener at this time of year. There are so many softwood cuttings going begging on hardy fuchsias, penstemons, geraniums, herbs and sub shrubs. The sensible approach is to tackle autumn gardening operations in stages over several weeks. Start with harvesting and propagation, move on to new plantings, then consider how best to protect tender plants before battening down the hatches for winter.