The change from summer to autumn seems to happen overnight in the garden. One day everything is vibrant, leafy and floriferous, the next it’s muted and cold. This year’s autumn is early – the RHS reported early autumn leaf colour and ripening apples up to two weeks sooner than usual, due to “mixed, extreme weather conditions”.
I don’t blame the trees for wanting to shut down early this year, I would too if I could. But the leaves of my Morello cherry tree started yellowing in August, which was a bit much, even by 2020’s standards.
I’m a terrible autumn pessimist, forever teased by “autumn markers”. I start grumbling when the swifts leave. Soon afterwards the tits and finches start gathering in flocks again, while the starlings take to the rooftops to whistle and whoop before heading to Brighton Pier for the first murmurations of the season. The sedums bloom while summer plants seed and disappear. Then all it takes is one cool morning and whoosh! Hello autumn.
I cheer myself up by getting on with “autumn jobs” and planning for spring. I buy things to plant: autumn-planting garlic and onions for the allotment, spring-flowering bulbs for the garden. I plant bare-root shrubs and trees – I have a mixed native hedge to finish this year.
I sort my compost heaps out, taking care to do this before it gets cold and animals need them for hibernation. I sieve and spread the compost on the borders to return nutrients, bacteria and fungi to the soil before creating new heaps with the remaining waste, for next year.
Other areas of the garden are mulched with last year’s leaf mould, which I collect from street elms in Brighton and Hove. Elm leaves make the best leaf mould, breaking down into a decent mulch in just 12 months. I divide plants and move shrubs. I buy seeds. Collect more elm leaves.
As a wildlife gardener, I’m also careful to ensure insects and other wild species living in my garden and allotment make it through winter. I’m selective about the seed heads I cut down so goldfinches have something to eat besides the sunflower hearts in my feeders.
I pile sticks and clippings at the back of borders so insects, amphibians and small mammals can take shelter. I leave areas of grass long so caterpillars and beetles can hunker down in the thatch. I try not to be too tidy – there’s no point getting all your jobs done if it means destroying homes for wildlife.
Some things can wait until spring. Hedgehogs will soon be looking for autumn hibernacula. Just yesterday I removed old bedding from my hedgehog box, cleaned it out and filled it with fresh hay. I left a trail camera out the night before so I could make sure there were no hedgehogs in there when I opened it.
Hedgehogs need to be snug in winter and not disturbed. The hogs tend to use my box as “spring digs”, they’ve not nested or hibernated in there yet – I have crossed fingers for a winter resident. I’ll leave water and food out for them until it’s no longer taken, and keep the cameras out so I can keep an eye out for those that need help. Autumn is a tricky time for hedgehogs, as they need to be big enough to hibernate. Tiny hedgehogs or those out during the day should be taken to a rescue centre.
Once my jobs are done, I’ll distract myself with migrant birds for a few weeks before my spring markers start appearing. It won’t be long before the daffodils start poking their leaves though the soil.