All about Autumn…

Autumn is the time of year that the poet Keats called the ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, and how right he was. Autumn is the season famous for its harvest time, turning leaves, cooling temperatures and darkening nights.

mosslaneleavesWe often talk about it beginning to feel like Autumn when the nights start to draw in and temperatures start feeling cooler. Here are a few facts about this mellow season…

Autumn begins
So when is the first day of Autumn? It depends on whether you are referring to the astronomical or meteorological autumn. There are two different dates when Autumn could be said to begin. Autumn, as defined by the Earth’s orbit around the sun, begins on the Autumn equinox which falls on 22 or 23 September. However, for the purposes of recording climate data, it is important to have set dates that can be compared, so the meteorological Autumn always begins on 1 September.

People born in Autumn live longer!
A study in the ‘Journal of Aging Research’ found that babies born during the Autumn months are more likely to live to 100 than those born during the rest of the year. Their study found that 30% of US centenarians born during 1880-1895 were born in the Autumn months. I had never heard that before… and as my birthday is right on the cusp of Summer and Autumn, who knows what that means for me!

What is an equinox?
The word ‘equinox’ comes from the Latin equi (meaning equal) and nox (meaning night) accounting for the equinox marking the time when day and night are of equal length. We often notice the nights begin to draw in from this point as after the Autumn equinox, the night becomes longer than the day, until this is reversed at the Spring equinox.

A date for your diary – 24 September 2303
Generally speaking, the Autumn equinox always falls on either 22 or 23 September, but not quite always. Because the Gregorian calendar is not quite in perfect symmetry with the Earth’s orbit, the Autumn equinox will very occasionally fall on September 24. This last happened in 1931… and will next happen in 2303.

Autumn, or Fall?
I always think of ‘Fall’ as the North American version of the word ‘Autumn’ and as being the ‘new kid’ on the block! However, the term fall was actually in widespread use in England until relatively recently. Originally a shortening of the phrase ‘fall of the leaf’, the phrase was common in England in the 17th century. Although Chaucer first used the word Autumn in 1374 it did not become common usage until the 18th century.

Personally, I think Autumn is a lovely word and I shall continue to use it to refer to this beautiful time of year. Right, I’m off to sweep up some leaves in the garden now…

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I love hydrangeas!

 

hydraniasI have to give a huge shout out for my hydrangea bushes – they give such amazing service all summer long with their flowers. Then they start changing with the coming of autumn and the colours are amazing and jewel-like. Now is the time to harvest some to bring into the house.

So having served us all summer on the bushes, you can then get months (or years) more service from their beautiful blooms indoors. Cut them off the bushes either on a long stem or just the heads depending on how you plan to use them.

I personally cut longish stems making sure I cut near a new pair of buds. This cutting, or pruning, alters the size and shape of the hydrangea bush but, to be honest, mine are so huge I am grateful to prune a bit in any direction! I am sure this is not the correct way to re-shape your hydrangeas (So sorry Monty Don) but it has always worked for me and never caused any harm to my bushes.

So, I cut longish stems and then arrange them loose in a vase or in a basket with dry Oasis. No need for water – just leave them to it and they will dry out.

You can enjoy them for months and, if you any of the hydrangea heads that go too brownish or mottled, there’s nothing like a can of gold spray paint for a glorious display at Christmas!

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The gorgeous gourd!

Alongside the glorious rich colours of autumn leaves, I think one of the most iconic images of autumn is of squashes – those wonderful shaped and coloured gourds or, to give them their proper name, Cucurbitaceae.

A gourd was probably one of the earliest domesticated types of plant as examples have discovered in archaeological sites dating from as early as 13,000 BC. Gourds are immensely versatile and can be found used in all sorts of ways throughout history, including as tools, musical instruments, objects of art, of course, food.

Squashes, pumpkins and gourds belong to the same family as cucumbers, melons, marrows and courgettes. There is an amazing variety of sizes, shapes and colours, and although most are edible, some are used for decoration only. All squashes and pumpkins have a tough outer rind, an inner cavity filled with hard seeds and sweet, rich, well-coloured flesh with a dense, nutty and earthy flavour.

As a child, I remember being served plain boiled marrow (ugh!) and carving pumpkins for Halloween but that was about the limit of my exposure to these vegetables. Now, we veggie gardeners grow courgettes by the ton and regularly shop for butternut squash and spaghetti squash, as well as turban squash, onion squash, acorn squash and even kabocha – this Japanese variety of squash.

Apart from being good to eat, they are also beautiful to look at, and their shapes and colours are incredibly diverse. I love seeing them arranged in a bowl almost as a work of art, and they will keep for ages.

Today, gourds are commonly used for a wide variety of crafts, including jewellery, furniture, dishes, utensils and a wide variety of decorations using carving, burning and other techniques. The Chinese developed a technique of tying a two-part mould around young gourds, or a part of them, so that the gourd grew into the mould and took its shape. Shaped gourds had various decorative uses, especially as boxes, bottles and other containers. And, don’t forget, that good old bath time companion the luffa (or loofah) is also a gourd!

Mini gourds are wonderful when included in floral decorations, such as wreaths, or table centres and you can buy a huge range online. Or you could grow them yourself, but drying, or curing, them takes time… let me know if you already grow them and I’d be interested to know how you use them!

Curing Ornamental Gourds

Curing or drying ornamental gourds requires time. There is no shortcut, like microwaving.

  1. Start by cleaning the surface of the gourds with soapy water and allow them to air dry.
  1. Place in a well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight, for about 1 week. The skin will begin to harden and change colour. After a week, the outside of the gourd should be well dried.
  1. Move the gourds to a well-ventilated, dark area where they can remain for at least 6 months. Spread them in a single layer and be sure none of the gourds are touching each other. Allow for airflow under the gourds by placing them on a screen or vented surface. It may be easier to hang larger gourds for drying.
  1. Check your gourds every few days and discard any that begin to decay, shrivel or get soft. If mould appears, see if you can wipe it off with a dry cloth or one dipped in bleach. If the gourd is still hard, it should be fine. Drying gourds is not a pretty process!
  1. Turn the gourd every couple of weeks, so it will dry evenly and to prevent rotting.
  1. When the gourds become light and hard to the touch, and you can hear the seeds rattling inside when you shake them, they are ready for use. At this time you can carve, paint, wax, shellac or decorate your ornamental gourds any way you wish. They should last indefinitely.

Gourd luck (sorry!)!

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It’s crab apple time

Crab apples are a very old-fashioned fruit. They are not readily available in shops, or perhaps only in the odd specialist one, but never the less they are a little autumn treasure that shouldn’t be ignored!

crabapplejelly

My crab apple jelly… and some other garden produce (just showing off a bit!).

I have a tree in the garden – and yes, I guess I am a little unadventurous with the fruit and produce crab apple jelly like most people do! I think I might do some research next year and see if I can find something more unusual to make with them. Meanwhile, here is the result of this year’s crop – it’s a lovely sweet tasting gentle jelly that is delicious with pork, or on warm scones, or on toast… and now I am going to go away and type the recipe before I get too hungry! But crab apple jelly and warm scones, mmm that does sound nice doesn’t it?!

The recipe is from the BBC Good Food site – love so many of their recipes!

Ingredients

  • 4 kg crab apples
  • 1 kg caster sugar
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • Makes 6 x 500ml jars

Method

  1. Wash the apples, removing any bruised fruit. Put in a saucepan, fill with water to just cover the apples.
  2. crabappletree

    Crab apple trees are very attractive, as well as providing lots of delicious fruit. Credit: PhotoLibrary RM.

    Bring to the boil and simmer until the fruit is soft (about 30 minutes).

  3. Pour the pulp into a jelly bag or several layers of muslin and let drip overnight into a pan. Do NOT squeeze the bag or it will make the juice cloudy.
    ————
  4. The next day, measure the juice, and add sugar in the ratio of 10 parts juice to 7 of sugar. Add some lemon juice, then bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
  5. Keep at a rolling boil for 40 minutes, skimming off the froth. To test the set, chill a dessertspoon in the refrigerator.
  6. When the jelly is set, it will solidify on the back of the spoon. Pour into warm, sterilised preserving jars and tightly seal while still slightly warm. Store in a cool dark place.
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Putting your garden to bed…

scabious

Scabious, always so vibrant.

Gardening is such a wonderful thing! It’s good for you physically and mentally and you get lovely flowers of fruit and veg as a reward for all your effort. I must say I am really enjoying the new hour-long editions of Gardener’s World. I did wonder if an hour might drag but it is a tranquil, yet inspirational, hour on a Friday evening – just lovely!

It is easy to think that come the Autumn the garden just goes to sleep until Spring but that’s not the case. Your garden needs help ‘putting to bed’ in all sorts of ways. Put in the work now, and it will pay dividends in the Spring.

It’s always good to be thinking about colour in the garden next year, planning ahead and sowing now will save you a lot of money too. Sow hardy annuals, such as cerinthes, scabiosa and cornflowers, for flowers early next summer. You can also plant wallflowers, pansies, forget-me-nots and other gorgeous spring bedding in pots and borders. And, to keep interest in your garden now, how about planting up containers for autumn colour, using cyclamen, heathers, heucheras and other colourful bedding plants?

One of the best ways to save money and feel chuffed by your own efforts is to collect ripe seeds from your favourite flowers and store in labelled envelopes, ready to sow in spring. I can confirm it is a very good feeling to see the seeds start to germinate.

As you know, I have really been getting into growing veg this year and I want to try and keep greens growing in my raised beds so I am going to sow some hardy greens such as kale, lamb’s lettuce and mustard, for delicious winter pickings.

Rather than splashing out on supermarket-grown herbs, why not pot up herbs, such as chives and parsley, and place on a sunny windowsill to use during winter?

If you are lucky enough to have a greenhouse you could plant prepared hyacinth bulbs in pots or hyacinth glasses, for fragrant indoor flowers at Christmas – lovely! You could also plant dwarf spring bulbs in pots, including irises, crocuses and scilla, for early flowers. Remember to keep your eye out for pests and diseases in the greenhouse, and tackle any you find immediately.

Finally – garden maintenance! I know it sounds dull, but these routine jobs can really make a difference. If you have a pond, put netting across to stop autumn leaves falling in and rotting. And, finally,­ and this one is very important – clean out water butts and check downpipes in preparation for autumn rains and leaves. There’s nothing worse than looking out at the pouring rain and seeing your gutters overflowing and knowing that someone (ideally Richard!) will have to go outside and clear the blockage!!

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