Autumn is most definitely here. It has thrown so many different kinds of weather at us this week that it has been hard to keep up. We had a blissful couple of bright sunny days at 20C (‘feels like’ 24C – and it did), dropping to only 15C at night: shorts and t-shirts all the way and maximum time spent outside. We’ve had days of heavy showers – the first in weeks – with the temperature hovering in the low teens and evenings cool enough to light our new woodburner for the first time; mmm, so cosy! There was a morning chilly enough to put a skim of frost on everything, another so shrouded in cloud the world was all white and muffled; several days have treated us to brilliantly artistic sunrises and equally fiery sunsets. There has been the gentlest of breezes sending a dry whisper through the hedgerows and teasing leaves here and there to drift down in slow and dainty pirouettes from the trees, and a night of gusty storms that rattled round the chimney and dumped a pile of colourful leaves outside the kitchen door as if nature had decided to indulge in a little seasonal window dressing.
Out on my bike, I’ve worn a t-shirt one day but three layers plus gloves on another and have spent days in the garden working up and down through various layers of clothing and switching between old trainers and wellies, sometimes from hour to hour. I planted white garlic in the warmest of soils on a beautiful sun-drenched afternoon and rescued wind-damaged brassica plants on a cold and soggy morning. Well, ’tis the joy of the season and I quite enjoy the whole unpredictability of it all; at least it hasn’t been cold enough to light the kitchen woodstove – yet – and glimpses of sunlit autumn colours against a blue sky have been exquisite.
In the garden, there has been a feeling of season’s end for many plants. We have eaten the last of the aubergines from the tunnel and the final outdoor courgette. The sweetcorn ran out of steam and with the last small cobs consigned to the freezer, I chopped and dropped the spent plants where they stood. I intend to plant climbing beans on their patch next year and have been busy making up for lost time, adding organic material to feed the soil; having planted up the neighbouring Strawberry Circle – and blimey, those new little plants are looking good! – I now need to shift the remaining four from the sweetcorn bed to give myself a clear run at feeding and extending it before spring. However, there is a bit of a problem in that the strawbs are still fruiting merrily after five months of berries and I am still picking them daily to eat on my breakfast oats; yes, I have pointed out it’s October (actually, almost November) but nothing so far has deterred them. They go on and on.
Crazy strawberries apart, it always feels a bit odd to see the lush summer growth of the garden fade and die back but it is all part of the natural way of things and we still have so much good food to come that I don’t find it sad. The ‘Autumn King’ carrots are living up to their name in every way and are without doubt the biggest we have ever grown; whether seasoned with warming spices and roasted with squash or grated with cabbage and topped with rocket, landcress, New Zealand spinach, pickled nasturtium seeds and herbs in a crunchy salad, they are sweet and delicious. We are ploughing our way through an incredible harvest of crisp and enormous pointy (early summer) and drumhead (late summer) cabbage while the Savoy (winter??? Not a hope . . .) are charging on behind. I love their huge crinkly leaves backlit in sunlight or sugared with frost, such beautiful seasonal textures to delight in. I’ve gathered up a few of the smaller summer cabbages to make sauerkraut and also set a jar of beetroot to ferment; things might be feeling a bit end of season but there is so much left to enjoy. Needless to say, the apple pressing goes on and on . . .
The Jerusalem artichoke flowers brought a bold splash of late colour to the vegetable patch but the plants outgrew themselves and toppled over a couple of weeks ago; I didn’t have the heart to do anything about them as they carried on blooming at ground level and were still buzzing with insects. This week saw the end of the flowers, however, so I have finally cut them down, leaving stalks to help us locate the tubers in the depths of winter. I chopped the plants and added them to the sweetcorn bed as a mulch which should rot down nicely over winter and encourage the worms to do their stuff. As well as a fascinating range of fungi (including some very tasty field mushrooms), the cut grass is now teeming with valuable wormcasts; it’s good to see these most precious of gardening companions are busy again and when it comes to mowing, we will leave the final clips on the surface to feed them. It’s probably no great coincidence that the moles are also back to their industrious ways, bless their little velvet socks, so I’m back to shovelling up their hills to spread as topsoil on various lasagne beds. They seem to be in cahoots with the jays, since every tump has a strategically placed acorn on top of it; no question, nature would plant an oak forest here in the blink of an eye if we turned our backs long enough.
Along with the other summery veg and flowers, it’s also been time to bid hasta luego to the climbing beans which have finally reached the end of the road. In Asturias, our neighbours grow the plants up strings instead of poles (although last year, netting had become the new fashion) and harvest the whole lot at once, draping the pulled plants over horreo balconies to dry before threshing out the beans. My approach is a bit different, probably not as efficient but one that suits our lifestyle and organic gardening principles better. For starters, we prefer to freeze the beans rather than dry them; for us, they are a winter staple and it’s much easier to grab a batch last minute out of the freezer than have to remember to soak them overnight, so I’ve been picking and processing them over a number of weeks as they ripen. As they are legumes, I cut the plants off at ground level, leaving the roots to break down naturally underground in their own time. I then unravel the twisted stems up the poles, picking the last beans as I go. This is a bit laborious – especially as there has been a shameful amount of pole-hopping going on this year, so it’s like unravelling tangled balls of wool – but it means I can chop the vegetation as I go along, letting it fall to the ground as a mulch.
I’m planning to plant courgettes in this space next year; as greedy feeders, I think they’ll appreciate following the nitrogen-fixing beans and this additional layer of green fertiliser should encourage the worms to do their stuff and enrich the soil. It’s well worth the effort and not a bad job on a warm October afternoon. The twine I used to tie the poles is biodegradable so that joined the mulch mix, the hazel poles have gone into dry storage for next year and we have a freezer drawer full of fat creamy beans to enjoy in the months to come. We’ve had a great crop of seed from the dill and coriander that grew with the beans, all dried and stored for use in the kitchen. I’m leaving the dead plants untouched as their hollow stalks provide excellent overwintering homes for a wealth of beneficial insects – and I’d far rather we can count on their presence next year than worry about having a tidy garden. One of the things that has really struck me this week is the sheer number and variety of ladybirds we have and that is definitely something worth celebrating.
In the local neighbourhood, the maize harvest is in full swing; the field behind our garden is being munched by headlight as I write (it’s 9pm!), but one further along the lane was cut earlier in the week and the subsequent hauling of manure left an opportunity too good to be missed: as I set off to St P on my bike one morning, I met Roger running home pulling a wheelbarrow loaded with well-rotted muck behind him! Well, I’ve heard of people training by pulling tyres behind them but this did look a bit extreme . . . such is the life we lead. The farmer did scrape the lane clean once he’d finished, but why let nutritious stuff like that be flattened by cars when it can do so much good in the garden? This was my cue to take a deep breath and move the crown of rhubarb we inherited here and which I have been nurturing for many months. It really was long in the tooth, the central root thick and pappy but very deep so it took a lot of lifting. I split it into four crowns, each with a couple of fresh young buds and planted three of them in the Perennial Thug bed along with plenty of that manure: I’m hoping that at least two will flourish so I can alternate between them in forcing a crown each spring. The fourth root was potted up as a long overdue plant swap with a friend, so fingers crossed it will do the business. It’s good to see that bed filling up and I’m beginning to think it will be the best spot for planting some purple globe artichokes next year (once I’ve raised the plants from seed). This year’s green ones haven’t looked back, although we really shouldn’t be eating them at this time of year; in fact, I ought to be thinking about covering the crowns to protect them from cold weather over winter . . . once the spiders have finished with them, of course.
Foraging for wild food has become very popular – some might even say trendy – in recent times and the bigger part of me welcomes this. I believe that anything that encourages people to spend time outdoors, exploring their local environment in depth, connecting with nature and the seasonal cycles and broadening an appreciation of foods that haven’t been processed or bought from a supermarket is a good thing. The flip side, though, is that in some places, too many people have piled in and allowed over-enthusiasm (and yes, let’s be honest, greed) to rule, stripping hedges, woodlands, moorlands or wherever bare of the bounty on offer. The consequences of this don’t need spelling out: surely it’s simple common sense, for example, that elder and hawthorn stripped of summer blossom won’t bring forth autumn berries? Also, once the novelty of seeking and gathering is over, for some the idea of actually eating these wild foods doesn’t seem quite so attractive and consequently they are wasted . . . and that sort of behaviour I really can’t condone. I feel very grateful that we are privileged to be able to forage on our own patch and that alone serves as a useful check against over-indulgence. The red squirrel watching me with unwavering attention as I gather chestnuts or the flap and clack of departing blackbirds as I approach the hawthorn bushes serve as timely reminders that these goodies are there to be shared; it would be pure hypocrisy to wax lyrical about working to preserve and enhance our ecosystem if we then strip it bare of what are essential foodstuffs for others who share this space. We are lucky: we don’t need to live on wild foods, but we can forage small amounts to enjoy as celebrations of the season, or even enough to preserve for the leaner months, but we can leave most for those whose need is greater than ours.
There is a current school of thought that, in the face of the climate crisis and general uncertainty over the future, we must look back towards the wild foods that sustained our ancestors in order to move forward. That is for greater brains than mine to analyse but in the meantime, I think it is interesting and informative to experiment with the possibilities of the wild foods we can gather here. Turning to foraging in times of crisis is nothing new; the log books of a Welsh village school where I once taught described how during World War II, children were released from lessons to gather rosehips for syrup . . . and were even given government issue wellies to help them on their way. I have been collecting rosehips for some weeks now and freezing them ready to make into a cordial once we are back to kitchen stove days; my plan is to use it as a hot vitamin-rich drink in the dark depths of winter. Hawthorn berries are also in the freezer, waiting for my first experiment with making fruit leather – thanks to Jonathan for the recipe idea. I’m going to combine them with apple and (hopefully!) dry them into a decent leather overnight in the stove, something that should then keep for a year or more and serve as a healthy and nutritious snack.
Roger took the ladder down into the hedgerows a few weeks ago and picked a large bag of fat blue-black sloes. We haven’t made sloe gin for many years but with Sam and Adrienne due to visit from Norway for a few days before New Year, I thought it would be a lovely seasonal treat to share with them (we won’t have seen them for almost exactly two years, to say it will be a full-on foodie fest is something of an understatement). As gin is never on our shopping list and we rarely go near a supermarket, it has taken me a while to remember to buy the necessary bottle so in the meantime, the sloes have been enjoying a deep frost in the freezer. This is a brilliant hack for sloe gin, as they burst on defrosting, releasing all those precious juices without the tiresome need to prick each one several times. They are now macerating happily in a jar with the gin and some sugar, I’m giving it all a good shake every day and then next week, I’ll strain the liquid back into the gin bottle and forget about it until Christmas.
Since foraging is not a precise science (especially practised at the top of a ladder), we ended up with more sloes than were needed, so what to do with the spares? While I messed about with gin, Roger did a quick internet search for ideas and came across Rachel Lambert’s inspiring foraging and wild food website at https://www.wildwalks-southwest.co.uk/. In no time at all, he had made a jar of her sloe syrup, rich, dark and fruity with just the right hint of astringency; Rachel suggests drizzling it over porridge but we also think it will make an ideal substitute where recipes call for pomegranate molasses. Why stop there? Before I could turn round, our walnut store had been raided and, using the fruits left over from syrup making, Le Chef had turned out a batch of sticky sloe and nut clusters. We are not great lovers of sweet things but sometimes there’s a need for a little boost after a long run, walk or bike ride and these gooey, chewy, fruity, nutty little numbers just hit the spot perfectly and taste like nothing else. Even better, with the stones consigned to the compost heap, there wasn’t a scrap of waste from our sloe harvest (and still plenty left on the blackthorns in the garden). Just as foraging should be, surely?
As the season shifts, so does our focus on the list of jobs to tackle. It’s a good time to reflect a bit on what we’ve achieved so far and to get stuck in to priority projects outside while the weather still holds. Some kind of shed and rainwater collection system in the veg patch is top of the list as hauling water from elsewhere isn’t very efficient (and also a lot of hard work), so Roger has sketched out a design and made an impressive start, re-purposing timber and roof panels from the carport bay he removed earlier in the year. We need to tackle the hazel hedge which has been allowed to grow into tall trees and casts a lot of shade across the growing areas for too much of the year; we are planning to reduce the height considerably, thin it out and then lay it properly – that will be quite a task. We’ve made good progress in creating habitats for wildlife but a pond is the one key thing we are really missing so there will be that to dig out, too. There’s also some work to be done in the coppice and logging is an ongoing task as always. Of course, there’s still the kitchen to finish (!), curtains to line, a bedroom to decorate and a pile of other indoor bits and pieces to be done . . . but while the sun is shining, we will be outside enjoying the very best of autumn while it lasts.