24 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

The period from the autumnal equinox to the winter solstice (I’d call it Autumn, but I know that’s not a majority view) is probably the least popular gardening-wise, or any-wise. After an active life in spring and summer, the gardener traditionally subsides and retires as the garden retreats under her feet, and sits out the final dismal tract of time indoors.

This year I was highly motivated to try and eke something out of the dying season. After a sprightly start in spring, the garden and I had languished in the heat of summer and we were left with no option than scramble for hope against the grain of the dwindling days. I can now report decisively that October and November are best spent outside. I realise this is counter-intuitive, the allure of the wood burner, and Inside generally, is very strong. Outside feels like stepping into a harsh alternative reality.

But way out there the time has sped by – even a short measure of autumn sunlight is better for the spirits than dragging days indoors. Much easier to dig in the freezing cold than sweat it out in the spring. I’d tell myself. I discovered you can get up to half a dozen layers on your top half and it doesn’t matter what the weather throws at you. Well, apart from eighteen inches of snow, of course. I almost got buried alongside rows and rows of onions, garlic and shallots. The only clue to my identity would have been pockets stuffed with plant labels, and the name on my death certificate might have ended up as Monsieur All the Year Round, or something.

But otherwise it’s been a revelation of slightly wind burnt activity. If the soil was frozen hard (which it was – often) I could unveil some softer stuff from under a sheet of plastic mulch and dig that instead. Eventually the pigs would emerge all frowsty and draped in their bedding and enquire what I was up to. Their companionship was rewarded with an old cabbage or something to crunch on…

… then, when my back was turned, they would sneak off back to bed. Lucy Dog would also pay me a loyal but reluctant visit occasionally. But most of the time it was just me and it. At this difficult time, the bare trees are devoid of any life and the whole scene is almost lunar in its exposure to what’s above. But despite this, everything that likes a cold start got in the ground in quantity and thereby the workload is much reduced for when the next window of outdoor sowing opportunity comes around in February. Every month should have a gardening flavour and I think I’ve found one for October/November, albeit one to file under ‘obscure, acquired taste’.

That outdoor addiction hasn’t done much for my greenhouse progress. The nature of that adapted barn is very amenable in the other three quarters of the year, but it seems to magnify the damp and cold in autumn. They start at your feet and work upwards until you’re drinking hot coffee just to maintain basic brain function. If there’s a spirit of Breton damp, he resides in my greenshed. But I’ll have to defy him next week and get sowing in earnest: those shrubby herbs, onions (from seed – I never want to see a set again!) and some brassicas can all get going around the solstice and again free up precious time for more precious sowings later on.

The dying in this season thus engenders life in the next. Which is as good as it gets. That happy time is coming soon. That thing which makes December special. Happy solstice, in case I forget!