As September slips into October everything takes on a rosy glow. The trees that mark the boundary of the park are beginning to look burnished. The autumn sun is sinking a little lower in the sky each day and by late afternoon it radiates through the leaves in the garden illuminating them ruby, copper and sulphur yellow. The hedgerows are laden with fruit and the meadows are now full of sculptural skeletons laden with seeds. In the early evening the air is pink and milky and full of woodsmoke. And the icing on the cake? It’s finally cold enough to justify lighting the fire. I might be biased since I’m an autumn baby but this time of year is definitely one of my favourites.
Gardening conditions are cool and crisp and it is a lovely time to be outdoors. For the last month, I have been planting bulbs in every patch of soil I can find around the garden. Narcissus, taller varieties for the bigger borders, and the neater more wind-resistant dwarf varieties for the pots and raised beds. Tulips, clustered in clumps close to the house for impact, squat and sturdy Muscari giving a carpet of electric blue wherever they are planted, and of course, the glorious Allium, perfect architectural globes atop impossibly tall slim stems. They transform any border into something RHS-worthy.
It is a job with no immediate payoff. An hour at a time on hands and knees burying unpromising dry knots into the ground, with seemingly nothing to show for all that labour but a sore back. But like many gardening tasks it’s an investment in the future. At the end of January, when the cosy brightness of Christmas is already a distant memory and everything seems bleached and deadened, we begin to long for spring. It is then that those lime green tips emerging from the soil quickly followed by the diminutive white nodding fairy bells of the Snowdrops planted last autumn, or indeed many autumns before, will seem like a precious gift and a reminder that all is not lost.
Autumn is also a great time for garden wildlife. Now the trees are partially bare of leaves, it’s easier to get a good view of the flurry of feathers at the bird feeders, and sometimes even the flick of a smoky tail as a grey squirrel arrives to reek mischievous havoc. So far so unsurprising. Until one morning I flung open the curtains and was greatly taken aback by the unlikely sight of a dozen or so large turkey-like birds standing on the front lawn. This was momentarily disorientating until I realised that they were Guinea Fowl who had clearly wandered up from the nearby park. I promptly headed out with a bag of the seed mix I use in winter - meal worms and sunflower hearts and other bird delicacies - thinking that they would immediately run away. Instead they stood as a respectful distance, heads on one side, watching me sprinkling the food on the ground with great interest. They waited until I had moved away and then immediately waddled over and enjoyed their snack. Charmed, I headed inside to watch their comic pursuits from the kitchen window. Too late I realised that the act of feeding my new feathered friends had cemented their inclusion of our front garden in their morning foraging route.
As well as planting packet upon packet of bulbs in an attempt to establish some spring interest in the garden, I have also been grappling with the front lawn. Neglect, combined with summer drought and weeks under piles of scaffolding planks and rubble from the work going on in the house, had turned it into a patchy wasteland. For several months I had been diligently feeding, weeding, spiking and watering it in an attempt to bring some lushness back into the sward. But the bald patches stubbornly remained. There was nothing else for it but to complete one of the most irritating garden jobs: lawn patching. I painstakingly prepared the ground, carefully compacted new soil into the arid areas and then sprinkled the perfect proportion of grass seed complete with water retaining crystals on to the prepared areas. It took several hours. At the end of all my labours the finished result - dry arid grass with patches of darker new compost - looked like a mottled leopardskin that had seen better days. But, I thought with self-satisfied determination, in a few short weeks the grass would be lush and emerald green once again and my efforts would be paid back in (garden) spades.
One morning on return from the school run, I came over the hill and was surprised to see the feathery rumps of 12 plump fowl waddling up our drive. I pulled the car over and caught them just as they were about to tuck into the delicious grass seed they had discovered. I chose the tone of my ‘shushing’ carefully. I aimed for firm but positive, making it clear that the guinea fowl were indeed welcome in our garden at some point 2-3 weeks hence, once the lawn was germinated, but at present, regretfully, their presence was not required. My neighbour came out and helped me herd them down the street back towards the park.
The next day this event was replicated almost exactly to the letter except that my neighbour had already gone out for the paper so I had to do the herding on my own. I was disappointed that the guinea fowl had not received my politely delivered message from the day before. Namely, “You are welcome here. But just not today thank you.”
On day three I closed the gates before heading to school, smirking to myself at my forward thinking. On return to the house I got out of the car to open the gates and 12 heads raised simultaneously from the centre of the lawn to see what the noise was. Each beak was bulging with tasty grass seed. As it turned out, guinea fowl, despite looking like space hoppers with wings, can actually fly - as they demonstrated when I shushed them out of the garden, more aggressively this time. One by one they hopped onto the top of the garden wall and then fluttered delicately, with the grace of prima ballerinas, down to street level on the other side. They toddled off down the street. One hung back behind the others and turned back to look at me pensively with its head off to one side. It seemed to be reproaching me for my harsh betrayal.
And so the war of attrition continued until I was hosing the lawn one evening and realised that there wasn’t a single grass seed left to water. If anything, it was actually a relief to give up the madness. Eventually, the patches would grow over on their own and I was fed up with the enmity between me and my ungainly but surprisingly tenacious feathered friends.
Leaving the lawn to nature, and the gradual slide of autumn into winter, means more time for own of my other favourite pursuits: sitting in coffee shops. Finding the perfect establishment to enjoy a cup of joe is an ongoing hobby but one that is fraught with pitfalls. Only recently I was in the area of an old favourite and, naturellement, felt compelled to stop in. Admittedly, it had been a long time since I last visited. Disappointment awaited. At some point in the early noughties the interior had slipped from ‘cosy’ into ‘haggard’. I ordered a cup of tea and when it was poured, it very much resembled the burnt tangerine hue of Rod Stewart’s elbows.
At the other end of the spectrum, of course, is the artisanal coffee emporium. For some reason the owners of such establishments like to imagine themselves to be mad professors from the Victorian era (who just happen to own finely engineered Italian coffee bars the size and cost of a small family car) so expect a lot of apparatus: copper piping, conical flasks, bungs and the like. In such a place you can expect a fairly decent coffee. However, you may also have to wait several hours for it to ‘brew’ appropriately and will likely have to take out a second mortgage in order to pay for it. If you actually want to consume a pastry along with your beverage you will need to 1. Endure a lecture on which flavours pair best with your coffee 2. Sell a lung.
Somewhere in between the ‘greasy spoon’ and the hipster phafferaphorium (where the spoons are formed from up-cycled bicycle tyres) there lies the golden mean: the perfect proportion of cosy atmosphere, friendly inhabitants and unctuous sweet treats. In this heavenly place, frothy, smoky java, at just the right temperature, flows from taps handled by operatives who know what they’re about but don’t who allow the fruits of their labours to do the talking rather than refusing to give you your change until they have explained the provenance of the sugar cubes they have placed in a pyramid formation on your brunch slate.
As with most things, the quest for the grail is as rewarding as its discovery. So, in what might very well be a lifetime’s work, I am happy to keep hunting for the perfect elevenses. It’s arduous work, but someone’s got to do it. In the meantime the kitchens of Thompson Towers have also been known to produce a passible cuppa. So, as the wind swirls leaves down the street outside in a slow seasonal waltz, I’ll think I’ll just pop the kettle on.
Which, as it happens, will give me time to enjoy the comic, if somewhat bittersweet, spectacle of the friendly neighbourhood poultry uprooting, and then fighting over, all the daffodil bulbs I planted only a few days ago. “All is not well. I doubt some fowl play,” said Hamlet. Obviously he too was no stranger to horticultural trials of the waddling variety.
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