Winter is coming …

…the trees know this and now that autumn is in full-swing they are making ready. This year that preparation is almost mystical, as 2020 turns out to be a “mast year”, a year in which the woodland species somehow co-ordinate to produce a bumper crop of seeds, nuts and berries. Mast is the Old English name for the fruit of woodland trees and, while the wild creatures will surely have a feast on this bounty, the end game for the trees is that more saplings will survive and the woodland will thrive. How the trees manage this synchronisation has long been a mystery and the current theory is that they use the “Wood Wide Web”!

Trees and plants are connected to each other via huge underground networks of fungi which link their root systems. Through this they exchange nutrients and minerals with the fungi: the plants providing the sugars they make by photosynthesis and the fungi swapping the nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, that they harvest from the soil. As the fungi spread and prosper, they become linked to many more plants and this network enables the connected plants to exchange nutrients, water and hormones with each other. Check out Prof Suzanne Simard’s Ted Talk – fascinating.

As the length of daylight continues to shorten and the sun struggles to get even 30 degrees above the horizon, the deciduous trees halt photosynthesis and the green chlorophyll in their leaves fades to reveal other pigments. In the canopies, autumn glows in butter yellow birches, ruby red maples and the copper tones of beech. Feather-light now, the leaves will soon come to earth and with the aid of their fungi friends, become leaf mould to enrich the forest floor.

“Autumn leaves don’t fall, they fly. They take their time and wander on this their only chance to soar” – Della Owens

The fungi flourish in the cool wet weather and, as the trees drift towards winter slumber, on misty mornings mushrooms appear at their feet. Foragers love them I know, but I’ve never been tempted or brave enough. So I limit my foraging to berries for gins and jams and greenery to bring inside at Christmas time.

October is the perfect time to pick sloes as they are soft and juicy now. The challenge is to find any that weren’t prematurely picked in September. Perseverance pays off: blackthorns are plentiful in our hedgerows, so you just need to be prepared for a long walk on less well travelled tracks and then you will prevail. Once the sloe gin is made, patience and willpower are essential as, although it will be delicious in time for Christmas, it is always better the year after.

Of course there will still be gin at Christmas time; the rhubarb gin is ready for decanting now and is a pretty blush colour. In December, blackcurrant, blackberry and raspberry gins will join it and feature as presents for my friends and family. Sadly the pink grapefruit gin will not make an appearance as it has not survived the tastings, by which I mean it tasted so nice it is almost all gone already!  All the gin recipes are in the recipes section.

Here in Warwickshire we had the first hard frost in mid-November, quite late this year, turning the rhubarb leaves to mush. For me, that’s the signal to finish the big garden tidy up and get everything ready for the winter season. The asparagus and rhubarb crowns have been trimmed back and the old blackcurrant stems pruned out. The rest of the raised beds are now weeded and mulched so that Jack Frost and the worms can work their magic and give me a fine tilth to work with in the spring. The dahlias join the other tender perennials in the greenhouse, which is now full of plants overwintering until next year. In here the geraniums and fuchsias are still in flower as are a few stalwarts in the garden itself, the odd marigold, cosmos and salvia.

The most resilient and magical of all though is the rose, whose last blooms remain poised in the face of winter. Fitting subject for a Haiku inspired by Thomas Moore’s famous poem.

A rose blooms alone

Scented beacon of autumn

Velvet petals fall

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