Monthly Archives: October 2021

First of the winter thrushes

This week has felt like true Autumn. Cooler and sometimes misty starts, bright sunshine and clear, star-filled nights. Leaves are suddenly turning everywhere you look. Pavements and gutters are scattered with fallen leaves.

Last October was a wet and miserable affair. I spent a week on Exmoor, battling with pouring rain and gloomy skies in search of Red Deer, which barely ever showed themselves, except to bellow eerily in the woods around our cottage. This year is very different.

On my walk to the paper shop this morning I was keeping an eye on the sky. This is the time of year when the first winter thrushes, Redwings first then Fieldfares, begin to arrive from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Sure enough, as I turned the corner into my road, a small flock of Redwings flew overhead. There have been reports of huge flocks, thousands strong, from places further east and nearer to the sea, but these were my first handful of the season.

Redwings migrate by night, taking advantage of windless and clear conditions to make their sea-crossings. On a good night you can hear them passing above, invisible but given away by their thin ‘tseep tseep’ calls. It is one of the most evocative sounds of this time of year.

Redwings are not frequent visitors to my garden. But if the weather turns cold, they will come in search of windfall apples and Pyracantha berries. At present these are being eaten by the resident Blackbirds, who have abandoned the mealworm feeder in favour of a fruit diet. The mealworms did their job through the summer, while the Blackbirds were raising young – keeping the parents well-fed while they undertook their exhausting parenting duties, and then being ransacked by the fledglings once they were old enough.

Robins too are fans of mealworms, of course. I watched a man feeding a Robin the other day at a local nature reserve. He crouched down, gently calling ‘Here Bob. Here Bob’ and a Robin appeared from the brambles, pausing only briefly before hopping into his outstretched hand. He visits regularly, he said, and this Robin had become tame and trusting over the course of a few weeks. I’ve never managed to get a Robin to be that friendly. Hopping about picking up crumbs while we sit at the garden table is the closest in this garden. Perhaps I am not patient enough.

Fieldfares, bigger and solider than Redwings and other thrushes, are my favourites. Before it blew down in a snowstorm a decade ago, one Fieldfare would usually take up residence in an old apple tree in the front garden. No other birds were allowed near it, as it guarded fiercely the remaining fruits in the coldest weather.

The back garden’s remaining apple tree – something like a hundred years old, we’re not sure – bears fruit which are not very good for anything but cooking. They’re neither proper cookers – being quite small – nor eaters – being quite sour, but they make for a nice crumble or stewed down and frozen for later in the winter, when home-grown fresh fruit is at a premium. It yields well, though, and I take care only to tidy up the apples which fall within easy reach of the path. The rest I leave for the birds.

Take a walk

A walk to the market in the early morning. Low autumn sun after the overnight rain. Children waiting for the school bus. One boy stands alone wearing an extravagant leather cowboy hat while he studies his phone. Other boys, a few yards away, are laughing and punching each other, delicately and affectionately as if a gentle punch is the only way they know, or allow themselves, to express their friendship. Affection even. They do this for a few minutes every morning while they wait.

Some of the market stalls are still setting up. The baker is grateful for the sunshine after the torrential rain that fell on the last Market Day. He is on his own today, no sidekick to banter with. No three-way joking with customers and his young assistant, that is reserved for Saturdays, which are always busy.

There are no cut flowers today. The weekend’s rain will have torn the Dahlias and Gladioli they usually sell at this time of year. There may be some on Saturday. Who knows, though the forecast is good.

An older man in country tweeds walks away from the square carrying his two jute bags. Wellies, shooting breeches, gilet. He doesn’t live in town. People like him are always early to the market, driving in from the villages in their Range Rovers and then heading home before the crowds arrive.

The customers change throughout the morning. There are always early town people too, visibly less well-off in cheap clothes and trainers. Older people too, probably awake for hours already, nipping in to shop because that is what they have always done. And dog people, of all classes, combining a visit to the stalls with a walk for their pets. Dogs of all sizes as well, with seemingly no correlation between human and hound. How do people choose their dogs?

There is water all over the floor of the newsagent, but it’s not a leak in the ceiling it seems. The assistant goes to fetch her mop after I’ve bought my paper and looked at the pooled water with her. It looks as if someone has brought the water in on their feet. Has a swimmer been in, we joke? I wish her a ‘have a good day’ and leave the shop.

Cheese is next, but it’s not in its usual place. The stall has moved across the square, so I retrace my steps and buy Cheddar for cooking, chilli-flavoured cheese for my boy’s packed lunches, Brie and goat’s cheese for desserts. Strange how some stalls stay put for years on end, while others pop up in different places. Who decides where they go, or is it ‘first come first served’?

Finally, the game-butcher. Pigeon breasts for a quick supper and Guinea Fowl to pot-roast on a cool, autumn evening later in the week.

Shopping done, I walk back towards home up the hill. When I left the house it was still chilly but now, carrying my bags and walking up the gentle inclines, zigging and zagging through the crossword-grid of streets, it feels warm. Too warm for the sweater and corduroy jacket I felt I needed an hour ago.

First of October

Largely concerned with bulbs

Today I have been working in my garden. Well, ‘working’ hardly covers it really. More a case of flitting between tasks. Mostly I have been planting bulbs in pots and containers. The bulk of my ornamental containers are still fully occupied with summer stuff which hasn’t quite finished yet. Dahlias, Penstemons, Pelargoniums are alright for a bit longer yet, but those which had annuals in them can be emptied. I take out the plants and most of them go in the compost, barring a few which will go into the greenhouse for a bit, or those which I want to gather seed from. I tend to leave some of the spent compost in the bottom of the pot, add some feed, put in the bulbs and then fill up with new peat-free compost. Bulbs are not hungry at this time of year as they already contain the food which will see them through to flowering – it’s after that they need feeding and caring for, making sure that the bulbs will be good and healthy before going into store for next year. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I’ve kept back the nicest new Narcissi and Tulips for the big planters when they’re emptied, but a lot of the smaller bulbs – Puschkinia, Anemone blanda, small Allium varieties like A.moly and A.neopolitanum – I have planted in old plastic pots. They can grow on here for a few months through the winter until there is ample cleared space in the garden for them to be planted out straight from the pots, ready to flower. I top the pots with horticultural grit, which protects them from both heavy rain and squirrels, as well as making them look neat and tidy. Some of the potted bulbs will doubtless be taken to plant at the allotment if room here gets tight, as it always does. Blue and white Muscari, which grow like nobody’s business once they’re established, will also go to the allotment to brighten things up, and where they can spread as much as they like.

I’ve also ordered some Sweet Peas from the redoubtable Higgledy Garden. If you’ve not come across Ben Ranyard, the Higgledy seedmeister, do have a look at his website:

I’m not entirely convinced by autumn-sowings of Sweet Peas, as the ones sown under glass in March always seem to catch up very quickly. By the time it’s alright to plant them out it’s hard to tell which are which. Again, most of these will go to the allotment, as this garden is too shady for them ever to do very well in containers. I tend to sow these in plastic pots too, and then plant them out by the pot-full which minimises root disturbance and gives them a strong start once in the ground

Incidentally, when I mention plastic pots I am talking about pots which I have used and re-used for years. Of course we’re all trying (I hope) to restrict the use of plastic in gardens and elsewhere, but if the pot has been manufactured and is in my possession it would be counter-productive to bin it. I’ll keep using them until they get broken at which point they’ll be recycled. I reckon that by that point the carbon footprint of the pot will have been dented somewhat by what I’ve grown in it in the meantime. Though I am guessing – I’ve not seen any statistics on this: has anyone?

Sadly too, most plants which we buy are still coming in (black) plastic pots as well, which means some will sneak into the garden come what may. I am not so puritanical that I will deny myself a plant that I want just because it’s in a plastic pot. Mea culpa.