An Ode to Autumn

‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. That first line from Keats’ poem never fails to evoke the very essence of autumn for me. Cool dampness and ripened fullness on the point of turning to decay. Days shortening, vitality withdrawing back to the earth, sunlight stored in the fullness of roots and fruits to give energy in the coming months. Exquisite stuff. The conserving of energy and nutrients into roots protects plants from the winter elements as well as providing us with food. The debris mulches the surface of the soil, protecting from wind, rain and cold, providing cover and food for the myriad of little things that convert it back into nutrients suitable for plant roots again. Seeds dropped a few weeks ago are tucked in for winter to await the warmth of the sun. Nuts and berries are plentiful, sharing out the stored energy to all the other birds and animals in the system. On the allotment we too are harvesting the ripeness and storing the energy of the summer. September/October is always a lovely time of ‘at last’ red tomatoes, autumn fruiting raspberries hanging heavy (perfect mixed with great fat blackberries) and sweetcorn finally bursting milky juices. By the time you read this all my potatoes will be lifted and sitting in paper sacks in the shed, green tomatoes and neighbors unwanted apples turned to chutney, a bumper crop of blackberries (remember the wildnerness at the bottom of my allotment?) hopefully turned to a few demijons of blackberry wine on the go. Onions pickled (we’ve eaten all the big ones , not a good year), beans in freezer, jams in jars, parsnips and jerusalem artichokes in the ground (I remember diging parsnips on New Years Eve in a snow storm – creamed parsnip puree for a cosy dinner party made it well worth the effort!) So my autumn nutrient storage should keep us going through the winter, but what about the other autumnal aspect of feeding and protecting the soil? The conventional method of autumn digging, turning in compost, exposure of the soil to frosts and spring tilling to a fine tilth bears no resemblance to the natural process whatsoever, infact it is a complete opposite. Nature carefully covers up bare soil and compost (in the form of rotting leaves etc) is left on the surface for the worms to work on. In fact, if you are following nature’s example, as I’m trying to do on my ‘no-dig’ patch, even the intermediate compost heap should not be needed. On my ‘messy’ perennial plants and soft fruit area I have been chopping weeds and comfrey and leaving it on the surface every six weeks or so. On my rectangular annual beds I’ve mulched as crops are lifted or soil exposed with home made compost and/or grass mowings (provided by considerate neighbours ready bagged!). I have also allowed a fair amount of ground cover amongst the annual crops in the form of weeds! Again these are regularly pulled and left on surface before they get out of hand. Nasturtium and borage (also good mineral accumulators) were growing freely this summer, producing alot of bulk for nutritional autumn mulch. My new allotment half, laid to potatoes as a ground breaking crop using the permaculture sheet mulch technique, has turned from last years couch grass field to a dark brown compost. The potatoes were pulled by hand and the weed roots easily loosened from a 4 inch layer of compost (previously the cardboard, manure and grass sheet mulch). So I’m left with this large area which I cannot plant up with masses of winter crops from a holding bed since I’m not that organised (yet). I’m still thinking about the kind of beds I shall have in this area – I might try irregular shaped ones designed to maximize ‘edge’ growing space, with even some dwarf fruit trees in the centers, as per the permaculture principle of vertical stacking. Trees are not allowed according to the Borough Council’s Lone-, sorry Park-Ranger, but it’s a stupid rule and I’m in the mood for a fight about it. In the meantime whilst choosing and ordering varities, I need to do something quick to stop a new influx of weeds and improve the soil further. Alot of people cover unused areas with black plastic for the winter, which will protect from weeds and erosion but this doesn’t seem natural or give anything for the crawlies to do. Another way is to use an overwintering green manure – that is a crop sown purely to act as a living mulch which can be chopped down next spring before it seeds. The books all say for ‘digging in’ but that’s a no-no for natural gardening – no fresh stuff, plant or manure should ever be incorporated without letting the natural bacteria on the surface do its work first (and hey I’m converting you all to ‘no-dig’ anyway aren’t I?) Any plant that covers the soil could be seen as a green manure but it’s the leguminous ones that will really do the work for you. A leguminous plant has the wonderful ability to absorb nitrogen from the air and deposit it at their roots in tiny nodules, providing a slow release fertiliser that doesn’t wash away in the rain, so long as you don’t pull the roots out of the soil when the plants finished. Field Beans are what I use most often. They look like broad beans and are sown in October. Chop down in early spring and leave on the surface as a mulch until ready to plant through or scrape back to sow seed. Winter Tares are also leguminous and will apparently grow in adverse conditions so they too can be sown in the autumn for overwintering, and they produce alot of bulk for good weed suppression. I might try these on my potato patch. Hungarian Ryegrass will provide a quick ground cover for overwintering if sown up to mid-autumn, but it does need to be chopped and left to rot at least two months before next seasons planting since it is very fibrous. Phacelia and Poached egg plant are excellent for attracting bees and hoverflies and will mostly survive the winter. I’ve found my poached egg plant left to seed has produced a crop of seedling on a bare patch which I shall leave now. Automatic green manure! During the summer you can use lupins and clovers (both great for insects if left to flower) to cover any bare bits. These are both leguminous as is Fenugreek which is one of the fastest growing green manures useful amongst other crops. Unlike Mustard and Fodder Radish both from the brassica family, Fenugreek doesn’t have any associated problems requiring you to think about rotation. Buckwheat is another fast grower very attractive to hoverflies and a good calcium accumulator. These summer green manures will not survive the first frosts but they might be useful to prevent autumn weed growth on unused land if you remember to sow them early enough.

So by the time you read this I’m hoping

to be fully mulched and green manured, ready to withstand the winter months both outdoors and in, eating my stored up foods. Autumn is a time of contentment – full bellies, full larders and increasing sleep if one is connected to the land and the seasons. We should be getting ready for semi-hibernation, after celebrating the fruits of our labors with harvest festivals and rites centering around the glow of fire and lights (Bonfire night, Halloween and Davali for instance). Fire, a symbol of the breaking down of the old, protection from the winter cold, releasing energy stored in the wood, as it is in our autumn food. There’s an almost primeaval attraction to a big orange bonfire in the depth of autumn, surely a sign of our (albeit largely unconscious) connection to the turning of the wheel? Isn’t it marvelous how even our deep rooted psyches as well as our physical bodies fit into the natural scheme of things? Hope you’ve enjoyed my little Ode to Autumn – I have. See you next year!