A Celebration of Autumn Gardening
In Praise of Autumn… and Blazing Pumpkins
by Barney Bardsley
There is a mini pumpkin – “Baby Bear” – sitting on my kitchen window sill. I have spent the past two weeks watching it softly ripen from green-yellow to a deep vibrant orange. This is the pleasure of the autumn season. I grew the self-same pumpkin, along with some courgettes and “Turkish Turban” gourds, on one of my allotment vegetable patches. I can highly recommend them – if only for the spectacle of their growth: fat, green, palm leaves followed by canary yellow flowers, and then the profligacy of their fruit, luscious, shining cylinders and globes, one after the other, in sheer defiance of the unreliable weather – and my increasingly unreliable gardening.
For here is the confession: I hardly got to my allotment at all during the harvest month of August. With wanton disregard for continuity of care, or even basic maintenance, such as weeding, strimming, watering, I was off into the smoke, sampling the long-forgotten delights of London – cinema, theatre, hanging out in cool cafes on the South Bank – delights I neglected when I actually lived there, but which have now taken on an exotic allure which can only mean one thing. I have spent far too long in the garden!
Anyway, here I am, back at my post, working my way through the satisfying autumnal chores of cutting back overgrowth, pulling down canes and unwieldy growers (like self-seeded teasels, Jerusalem Artichokes – six foot tall and still climbing – and the tripod sticks which supported my runner beans), and generally settling the garden and allotment down for its long winter slumber. My absence without leave has left a deep-seated sense of guilt. I took on my allotment in 2003, when my husband was in the final stages of a nasty terminal illness.
“Tide of change that ebbs and flows”
The little patch of wild was invaluable to me as both escape and therapy – for body and mind. I have learned much in the past six years: mainly, that nature is a difficult beast to tame; that vegetables are complex creatures to cultivate, requiring vast and differing amounts of aftercare and attention, depending on their family group – legume, root or brassica; and that no amount of time that you offer up to the allotment plot, however small in size it may be, will EVER be enough.
Chiefly, though, I have learned about tenacity and the power to overcome – and about the never ending tide of change that ebbs and flows, not just through the garden, but through a human life. The country girl who has gradually emerged from the city woman that I am has thoroughly enjoyed getting straw in her hair and dirt on her boots: but is it time to hang up the trowel? After all, I have a sizeable garden at home to maintain – there is an allotment waiting list, long and impatient, of people who would bite off my hand to take on my modest half plot – and, crucially, the deadline for next year’s rent is looming, like a Sword of Damocles over my head. It has “decision time” scored in its metal blade, like the writing through a stick of seaside rock. I shall keep you all posted…
“Fine tuning is where the pleasure lies”
In the meantime, to work. Autumn is a lovely time, sweet and soothing in the way of no other season, since you know that the growing is over, but the abundance is still present. There is so much to enjoy. The turning of the leaves, green to gold. The joy of unexpected late fruits (potatoes left in the ground, that turn up, cool and velvety, when you dig the patch over, ready for next year’s rotation; late-fruiting raspberries, deep crimson lusciousness, bleeding over your fingers and bruising their sweetness onto the tongue; and – still – those courgettes, swelling endlessly on the stem.) The freshness of the soil, as yet unmired by the cold and wet of winter storms. The exquisite diminishing light – and the cool fragrance of the air. Give this up? Am I mad?
Cutting back, mowing lawns, strimming undergrowth, and roughly digging vegetable beds. These are the biggest chores of the moment. But fine tuning is where the real pleasure lies. Sit close to the earth and do a little gentle weeding. See how satisfying it is, to watch dark brown empty soil emerge from the tangle of weeds and spent flowers, all of which grew like Topsy while you were busy drinking coffee or wine, in a toast to the disappearing summer! And as you weed and tidy, scoop up the seed heads in their last-gasp desiccation, catch the seeds in brown paper bags, and let them thoroughly dry, before putting them in air-tight containers, for sowing next spring. Propagation is not my strong point – but poppies always do well for me, and nasturtiums, as ground cover, are reliable, gaudy and irresistible.
“Time to batten down the hatches”
The biggest thrill for most gardeners right now is the planting of autumn bulbs – daffodils, tulips, hyacinth and alliums. I remain strangely resistant to this ritual but am certainly a convert to the winter window box. Pansies and cyclamen are the brave and pretty souls who weather the winter chill and keep blooming all the way through. Last winter my cyclamen lay under two inches of snow for a week. When I finally got round to brushing them clean, their pink and white flowers were bright, untarnished and cheerful as ever. They are, as my mother would say, “good doers”.
If you are a broad bean fan, as I certainly am, then you might want to sow a few this autumn. Some species are specifically bred to withstand the autumn and winter – and they get off to an early start next season, growing tougher, and, in my opinion, tasting better than their spring-sown counterparts. Otherwise, it’s time to batten down the hatches, get out the seed catalogues and do some idle doodling on paper. What might you plant next year? Think of deeper colours, of the structure of high and low, of sculpture – sword leaves and frothy flower heads – and design. Gardening is really three dimensional dreaming. Get yourself back to art college and go a little crazy. (And make those pumpkins into a delicious pie!).
‘A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley is published by John Murray