Changing of the seasons

Our ‘Guernsey Gardener in London’, Paul Savident, is feeling autumnal...

THE heatwaves of the summer seem rather a dim and distant memory, especially when I stand and look out over our allotment plot in West London.

It’s all looking a tad tired. In fact, autumn feels as though she’s come really early this year, bringing with her sharply cooler nights, grey days sporadically sparkling with sunshine, and a more gently paced time of reflection and planning, at least for my time at the allotment.

For birthdays, anniversaries, and other special days of the year, many of us rely on a calendar of one sort or another: turning the pages day by day, or week by week, or month by month, and occasionally seeing in a font or scrawled message a day of personal value.

That’s fine for days, and dates, and times to meet, though when it comes to the changing of the seasons, and maybe especially for us growers and gardeners, we feel the changes in our hearts, and in our minds, and in our bones. It’s more about how the sweet sunshine and subtle breeze fall on our faces, how dank or dusty the soil is in our hands, whether leaves are shrugging off their green lustre for a bold shade of yellow, or crimson, and how suddenly, early one evening, we realise we’re witness to the waning of daylight and nights drawing in earlier, and earlier, and earlier each day. And this year, I’m really feeling that changing of the seasons… summer’s out, and autumn’s in, and in my heart and mind and bones I know this growing season’s all but over. But that’s fine by me – and I’ll tell you why.

My dad always looked at the growing year as October to September, rather than as a calendar year, and following in his footsteps, I do the same, it simply makes sense to me.

Admittedly, I don’t know of any other growers and gardeners who do it, though I’m sure they’ll come round to it over time.

You see, September’s the month when much of the growing and nurturing of seedlings, plants, fruits, and summer harvests is behind us, and though there are some vegetables still in the ground, many are fulsomely coming to the end of their lives.

The hardier ones, the overwintering ones, like brassicas, are ready and waiting to ward off the barrages that winter throws. Yet even as we in the UK and islands head towards the darker days and colder climes of the year, there are seeds of peas and broad beans to be sown, garlic cloves and onion sets to be planted, and much preparation of next year’s growing year to plan and do. These are all the start of something new, so the end of something now is no bad thing – especially as it’s the culmination of much hard work and happy times gone by – those not-so-lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer are firmly in the past.

So yes, for me and my growing regimes, this is the end of the year, and next month the beginning, and now is the time to take stock and reflect.

It’s now that my note making and taking really comes to the fore.

Out comes the notebook into which I’ve scribbled pencil and ink jottings through the growing year, and from between the leaves fall scraps of paper onto which I may have jotted just a variety and a tick, or a cross, or in the case of Brad’s Atomic Grape, a variety of tomato that many were raving about earlier in the year, I note there are two crosses – just to make sure I don’t grow these again. My notes highlight what has done well, and what hasn’t; suggestions from others of different varieties to try, and which ones I’ve tried and simply didn’t like, and the changes to a growing space, or a growing regime that I thought I’d be best to make when it came to me at some point whilst working the plot over the past 11 months.

It’s in sorting through these notes that I also sense a change in me, a slowing down in pace, and a cutting back of activity, just as autumn is bringing to the allotment. The endless watering of the long, hot summer is no more.

Yes, the butternuts still need watering, even though they’re themselves showing signs of age; becoming pale in leaf, and craggy in stem, though their jewels of developing and ripening golden squash shine bright.

The cucumber plants are going the same way. We still have two to harvest (which will go into a curry, as they’re a tad big), and we’ve a good few more that’ll be left to mature to a bursting ripeness, literally, and from their doused and sieved and sorted seeds will come next year’s plants, to start the cycle all over again.

Tomatoes this year have been a bit too hit and miss for my liking. Was it the time I sowed the seed? Or maybe the polytunnel was too cool and they’d rather the warmth of indoors at home? Was it the care and attention I gave them or the care and attention I didn’t? Could it even have been the way I trained them this year, which has been different to every other year? The truth is, I’ll never really know, though what I do know is the varieties I’ll grow again: Black Krim, Pink Bulgarian, Red Oxheart and the fabulous Amish Paste. I guess these are the four amigos of my tomato growing world, and I think Amish Sherbet will also join this happy band next year, simply as ours are stunningly yellow and bitingly lemony. The Guernsey Island tomato will be another for next year, even though this year’s seen most splitting with the late torrential rain we had – bursting the insides out as the skin couldn’t expand speedily enough. I’m still unsure whether these are the true ‘Guernsey tom’ of my youth; they seem too small, not red enough, and have obvious green streaks that I simply don’t remember. No doubt further investigation is needed during one of our next visits to Guernsey.

Further notes. Our Colleen potatoes did well for us again, an early cropping variety that works well boiled, mashed, roast, chipped and baked – a true all-rounder. It lasts well in the ground too, and being blight resistant is pretty hardy. Onions I’ll likely leave for this year, as I’ve had too much white rot to waste money on further sets.

Garlic, though, is a must, and this year I’ll be using our own saved cloves of Porcelain Music – a hardneck variety which did particularly well for us this year, and the pale purple stripes of its silvery paper-thin skin are always a happy sight.

What else has done well? Well, beetroot, and turnips – always good to grow and we’ve plenty of Golden, di Chioggia and da Orto beetroot still to harvest.

We’re risking a late planting out of Goldana and Purple Top Milan turnip seedlings too, which have been modular sown in clusters of three or four. They only went in the ground a few days ago, and if they don’t grow to size in the coming months, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that they’ll spring back to life in the spring. But then, after this, I need to think carefully, as a house move next year is now on the cards, and a not-too-distant reality.

Our house, which has been our home for almost 20 years, will be on the market in the spring. We’re looking to move north, closer to Richard’s family, and possibly west too. We’ll be hunting within a broad band of land between Macclesfield near Manchester, and Barmouth on the far west coast of Wales, just down the coast from the famous town of Portmeirion. After living in or on the edge of metropolitan hustle and bustle for over 30 years, we’ve done our stint in London. It’s now time for pastures new, maybe even literally– though I’m not sure Richard would agree to a smallholding.

Whichever way you look at it, autumn is well and truly here, at the plot in terms of growing, in my bones in terms of chill, and in our home in terms of our time in London. I guess A Guernsey Gardener in London will need a new name too, though maybe just a slight change – maybe A Guernsey Gardener from London is where we’ll end up.

One thing’s for sure though, there’s pondering and planning and planting to do during autumn’s months ahead. September’s over, bringing with it a close to another growing year, for me at least. And next month… well, next month is another month, and time to start anew all over again. Just like my dad used to do.

  • Paul Savident and his partner Richard Leighton-Hammond live in Hanwell in west London. As YouTubers they produce two weekly shows, Sunday Chat and A Week at the Plot. www.richardandpaul.com.

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