Autumn, season of fruitfulness

It’s a busy time in the garden, but possibly a season of retreat in our lives, says Michele Morrison

Keats captured the feel of autumn perfectly: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. The frenzy of July has abated and the light has softened. The apples and potatoes, which swelled slowly and steadily throughout the summer, are ripening now. The garden is still resplendent in rich colours and heady fragrances, but there is a tinge of melancholy in the yellowing hues of leaves as they die. They drop in twos and threes, or a sharp frost can release them all at once into a heap of billowing softness.

This is my third gardening article, and perhaps it’s time I came clean with you all – though this may not surprise anyone. I am a novice gardener – an enthusiastic novice, but definitely a novice. Between bringing up four children, part-time work, writing, and all the rest, my desire for a garden bursting with colour and fragrance remained for many years just that – a desire. Oh, I’ve always worked in the garden, but my efforts have most often been foiled by rampant weeds, aided and abetted by voracious snails, slugs, and the larvae of white cabbage butterflies.

Until my neighbour Mary offered to help me knock it into shape. With the children more or less gone, there should be more time for gardening, I thought – bit of a fallacy there, I’m afraid. But at any rate, two years ago Mary and I dug side by side every Friday morning, weeding, moving plants, thinning, ditching. Every struggling gardener needs a Mary at her elbow, helping to distinguish the flowers from the weeds, advise on the height and the spread, and help dig a nice straight line.

I told her I wanted the impossible: a garden full of beauty, but low maintenance. Not impossible, she said, but first you need to widen your borders.

Widen them? Expose more empty ground to airborne weed seeds? Though this seemed crazy to me, we broadened one bed from a single to king-size, and dug a new one.

And, much to my surprise, I am discovering that Mary was right. With semi-vigilant patrolling, I can spot new weeds as they sprout, and yank them out before the root reaches to China. So this summer, I enlarged the last couple of flower beds. And now, with Mary’s advice, I am filling those borders, with variegated heights and shapes, colours and fragrances.

A garden is a complicated thing. It isn’t like decorating the living room, where you choose the wallpaper, carpet and curtains and then you’re set for a few years with your static display of taste and beauty. A garden is constantly changing, and I’m beginning to see that this is one of its addictive allures. It’s the challenge of overcoming the vagaries of the British climate and the rapacious appetites of hosts of marauding insects, while maintaining steady applications of appropriate nutrients, mastering the sun/shade/soil preferences of every plant, and perfecting pruning techniques.

So, back to autumn and the tasks ahead ...

Clear away

You have been clearing throughout the summer, deadheading and so on, but now as the nights draw in, it’s time to tidy up in earnest.

Autumn’s glory is awesome but, as the glory fades, its residue needs raking. Leaf mould is a valuable soil-enhancer, so for goodness sakes, put those matches away! If you don’t have a wooden framework for composting leaves, stuff them in black bin liners with holes punched in for air, and give them the occasional shake.

Tender bulbs like dahlias and some lilies need to be lifted if you live in northern parts. Store them in dry, cool conditions.

As the foliage on perennials dies, cut it off. Clear out messy annuals, fork over, and tuck the bed in with a generous blanket of compost – and have a cup of tea. Very important.

Store and save

Avoid burying your treasure in the ground through spending a fortune on bedding plants from garden centres: take cuttings from fuchsias, marguerite daisies, and verbena (to pot on later and have ready for next summer), and save all the seeds you can. Peas and beans can dry on the vine and then be stored. Save squash seeds when preparing it for eating.

Small seeds can be collected by putting a paper bag over the seed head and turning it upside down in the bag. Close it carefully and leave in a dry place until all the seeds have dropped. Once they are clean and dry, store them in paper bags or old envelopes in the fridge, in airtight containers to protect from damp.

Pick and prune

Time now to pick the apples and lift the potatoes. Store perfect apples in slatted wooden trays, and make apple butter with the small and marked ones. Store tatties in hessian bags in a cool place – or give them away.

Pick and dry herbs for winter use – it’s easy. Just hang rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram and parsley upside down in a warm airy place. You could actually be doing this throughout the summer.

Prune blackcurrants (the old stems), and cut the fruited canes of blackberries, tayberries and loganberries off at soil level, tying new canes onto supporting wires. Prune climbing roses. Trim strawberry foliage and dig out unwanted runners.

Plant and move

Plant indoor bulbs (hyacinths, amaryllis) for Christmas, lettuce seedlings under glass, lilies in pots, and hardy spring bedding outdoors. Garlic! Buy hardy varieties, not the ones in stores, and plant individual cloves outside, deep, with the tips covered with soil for harvest next August.

Plant spring bulbs – tulips, daffs and crocus - and move shrubs growing in the wrong places.

Life gardening

So how do we extrapolate spiritual lessons from all this?

Like the falling leaves, they are everywhere. The multiple challenges of a garden are like those of life itself – anything can happen and it’s always important to remember that God is the ultimate gardener. When weeds of disappointment strangle your plans and hopes, look for new shoots planted by God himself.

Autumn is the time for planning intelligently according to your area (dry or wet, cold or hot) and your budget. You are trying to create beauty with your own individual stamp, and this is much like your life itself.  As the vibrant summer fades, take time to reflect, seeking God’s guidance in assessing your own temperament and strengths. If there is a season for retreats, this must surely be it. Consider what you are doing in your life and uproot and discard, or allow things more prominence. Invite God to prune you, to prepare you for his next move in your life, and to widen your borders.

As you gather in the harvest, reflect on the fruit God’s been growing in you, and lay down thoughts to feed on later. Prayerfully consider the spiritual harvest you are bringing in. Are there areas in your life where the fields are ripe, but you have been remiss in gathering them in?

Drying, storing, saving seeds – this is good husbandry of the gifts God has given us. What spiritual gifts has God given you, which you have not developed?

Just as you protect tender plants from frost, remember to put on the armour of God daily.

May this season of mellow fruitfulness produce in you a rich feast, which prompts a song of gratitude to our loving and gracious provider.