Autumn: In Your Garden

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Autumn is full of excitement. This morning I was setting spring bulbs again and unearthed a huge mother toad in her burrow under the peony. (The peony that let me down, last summer: maybe the plant does not like the toad). The toad was pale yellow and fast asleep until I so rudely awoke her: she blinked at me like an old pug. I tucked her up again under the warm damp soil and leaves; and planted the Queen of the Night tulips in another spot. No wonder people used to think toads such witchy creatures. She was in exactly the same place twelve months ago: it must be her favourite nest and I shall not disturb her a third time. The whole garden has an invigorating fertile humus smell in this limpid late sun: there’s still the green bitter caper-tang of late-flowering self-seeded nasturtiums, pruned lavender and transplanted herbs in my new Medea patch. Especially fragrant is the delicious helichrsyum (“spirals of gold”) – the silver-leaved curry plant which to me smells more like bacon mixed with Parmesan cheese. Next year I shall plant it among the tomatoes for an explosion of savoury scent. What must surely be the last rose of 2014 is in fat pink bud beneath the wall.

Because round here we all shop at Wilkinsons the same horticultural novelties from that store tend to appear in all the local gardens. This autumn many of us have had a go at growing black sunflowers. Not actually black at all, these beauties are multicoloured in deep violet and bronze, copper and gold with leaves that look as though covered in dark verdigris. They glow in the sunlight and have a unexpected and delicious fragrance, reminiscent of cinnamon, dust, nutmeg and gingerbread. Here’s yet another flower that is all too often written off as scentless – along with the under-rated perfumed pleasures of petunias, daffodils, scarlet runners, iris and snowdrops.

The fallen apples don’t lie long enough to moulder and only a few neighbours have the pleasure of fermenting waspy pears and plums. I missed the wasps this year: there were hardly any despite all that heat. The gathered apples are safely indoors, laid on newspaper on trays and filling the dining room with a rich fruity earthy odour that is also curiously oily. In that terrible winter of sugar riots and power cuts (1971, I think) I slept in a house that came alive after dark. The husband, Crippen-like, shovelled coal in the shallow cellar so that the hall filled with bitter coal dust. The wife boiled up chutney: so much chutney! Night after night the sweet and sour vinegary currant and sultana sugar smells wafted hotly beneath my bedroom door, making my mouth drool involuntarily and setting my teeth slightly on edge.

Soon the great boilings of the orange marmalade season will be here; the pickling of onions has begun. A crisp sweet onion scented with pepper corns and a few cloves is an irresistible delicacy. I met a lady at the bus stop in a state of great indignation: one of our best-known supermarkets had told her there was “no call” for white vinegar these days. My old childhood friend Mrs Sarson used to tell my mother that if you peel onions on your knees, holding the bowl of a spoon in your mouth then your eyes will not water. Mrs Sarson was a great pickler and her husband went to his reward eating an onion. She said, ‘He sat there with the jar on his knee looking up at the sky. I says to him, do you think you’re going up there? And then he did..’

There are worse ways to go.

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