The most notable thing about October is the smell. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the mixture of smells that seem to drift in with the month. The most characteristic is from ripening apples, but outdoor chrysanthemems are “autumn.” They have a smell all of their own. There is also a slight scent of gentle decay a musty earthy slightly damp smell of falling leaves that is both rich and sad, conkers, rain and handful of perfectly made compost add to the mix. No other month has the capacity for change like October: it comes in as late summer and a few weeks later may leave us in the grip of winter. Global warming may delay the onset of very cold weather in autumn; also one of the many effects of climate change is that our gardens are flowering longer and produce more colourful autumns.
The colours I like most are not the very bright reds, which always seem a bit too gaudy for the gentle autumn days, but the few days when the trees and hedges turn golden yellow reflecting the late sunshine; the field maple and elms are the best for this, and in spite of the Dutch Elm disease the elms live happily as hedges. Anytime now a fresh crop of seed/plant catalogues will be dropping through our letter boxes tempting us to grow all the latest varieties and of course our old favourites in the next season, not as far away as you think.
It is always surprising how fulsome things appear at the beginning of October, but this flatters to deceive – vegetable gardens still producing late crops and short day light flowers are still filling the gardens, dahlias, asters chrysanthemums, nicotiana, phlox and hardy fuchsias, but they are running out of time: every fine very sunny day is borrowed and the light, although soft and golden, is slipping slowly but surely away.
The truth is that October is clearly the end of the gardening year. Autumn rents are due and the harvest is all in weather permitting.
There is no guarantee that there won’t be any hard frost in October so be prepared. Horticultural fleece is the best protection against early frost, either laid over small plants or draped over vulnerable shrubs. Let the wheelbarrow do the work, undoubtedly one of the gardener’s most useful inventions. Through the centuries gardeners have been aware of the toll their work can take on the health of their back and muscles.
The wheelbarrow was certainly in use in China in the 3rd century BC, for carrying people and goods, not gardening. It did not reach Europe until the middle ages, not as the boxy device that we know but a flat long handled barrow. By the end of the mid 19th century a plethora of designs both single and two wheeled were available.
At this time homes and green houses were heated with coal fires; cinders were sifted regularly as the ashes made valuable fertilizers and barrows were fitted with cinder sifters on top, some also were complete “sifter boards”. During his stay in England in 1697 Tsar Peter the Great enjoyed being pushed about in John Evelyn’s garden in Deptford in a wheelbarrow at the cost of a holly hedge being seriously damaged.
Now is your last chance to trim conifers, hedges and topiary. You are unlikely to get any further growth this season so once cut they will maintain their neat outlines throughout the winter months.
A little word of warning , wild fungi and mushrooms are part of the garden’s ecosystem and they pop up all over the place at this time of year. Unless you know your fungi and can identify them accurately be very careful what you pick to eat. Admittedly very tasty with a fry, but some of them are also very poisonous. Do take great care. No visits to hospital.