First Signs of Autumn

To quote from the Keats poem ‘To Autumn’, is rather cliched I know but it really is becoming the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” here in the secret valley. I have to admit until I decided upon the theme for this post that, although I had heard this line so many times before, I’d never read the poem. I suspect a large number of people would admit the same so I have included it here, in full, at the end.
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Almost imperceptably, the leaves have started to turn colour although they are still more green than yellow, orange or red. The most noticeable sign of the new season has been the berries and other fruits. Despite the heavy, late spring frosts we had, it seems to be a bumper crop this year although I have heard that commercial crops of apples are down by 30%.
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The river a few hundred yards downstream from our little stone cottage broadens to become a small lake, created 100 years ago to attract duck and fish for the pot. Invisible throughout the summer months because of the leafy shrubs that shield it, it gradually comes into view as the foliage withers and falls and the water levels rise with the winter rain. Then it gives us what one of our friends describes as “the best view from any bath(wash)room in England” – and it is! What can be more decadent than lying in the bath with a glass of wine in hand, watching the wild geese and swans flying in from who knows where, for we rarely see them during the summer months?
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And it is the river and lake that tends to give us the mists on cool mornings. There is such a subtle difference between these mists and the fogs that are much more widespread across the country. We can recognise the difference instantly but how do we describe it in meaningful words? Perhaps mists drift to rise and fall as strands of it are caught on the slightest breeze, an uplifting experience for the soul, whereas fogs sit heavily both on the ground and on our spirits?
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A few days ago, on such a misty morning, it was cool enough for a heavy dew to form transforming the scenery with its silver frosting. Cobwebs hung from every available perch: strands of wire, branches and twigs, even the dying flower stems of the wild plants were draped with them. The scene was of silence and stillness, no bird sang and even the brook seemed to gurgle and babble more quietly than normal, as if reluctant to wake the slumbering countryside.
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As if to confirm the silence and emptiness of the landscape, even the new seasons swan, that I had admired on the lake the day before, had gone. Heavily in moult, all there was to confirm its arrival were white feathers slowly drifting on the surface saying “Hush! Be still. All is calm”.
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To Autumn
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Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernal; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease.
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
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Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
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Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
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An Unexpected Downpour

The heatwave may have ended a good number of days ago but the dry weather hasn’t and the gardens are desparate for water. Digging down to plant some large shrubs the other day, there was no sign of moisture in the soil, nor earthworms for that matter, no matter how deep I dug. It is tedious to water with a hosepipe and, for some inexplicable reason, (perhaps it’s the chemicals in tap water), plants react so much better to a drop of rain.
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Today the skies were grey but, as none had been forecast, it came as a surprise when I thought I could smell rain in the air. And was that a distant roll of thunder or was it just wishful thinking? With no further warning, the heavens opened, the rain bouncing off the surface of the lane and the leaves of the plants. By the time I had reached my camera, it was already beginning to ease.
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They must have had more rain than us, further up the secret valley, for water continued to rush down the lane in its haste to reach the river. Just past the bend its route took a sharp right turn to tumble down the steep banks to enter the meanders – the ones that feature on the header of this blog – just above the road bridge.

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It’s a novelty to see puddles once again!
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I couldn’t resist catching these images of the herbs cloaked in moisture. The French Tarragon seems to be greedier than most and holds water all over the surface of its leaves. The bronze Fennel, however, holds its drops in a very much more refined way as befits such a graceful plant.
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Cotinus – this is the variety called ‘Grace’ – appeared splattered with rain, as if it had been flicked with paintbrushes. It held its drops in different sizes, some so large I wondered how they could remain in place and keep separate from the smaller sized ones alongside.
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The old fountain head of a cherub and dolphin sits at the top of a flight of steps leading to the garden, for many years no longer used for its original purpose. Did the rain bring a slight smile to its lips and was that a tear that rolled down its cheek to its chin as it recalled its real purpose in life?
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If above is the picture of innocence, what is this next one? A single raindrop on each barb transforms the fence but it can only partially disguise its wickededness. We are not that easily fooled …
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Thirty minutes after the rain stopped the secret valley was shrouded in mist as the cooled air reacted with the warm earth. A short battle for supremacy ensued but, along with a slash of blue sky came a winning dart of sunlight and the mist fell to the ground, disappearing as quickly as the rain.
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A Sting in the Tail

This year is proving to be one of extremes. Weather wise, first it was snow, then late frosts, then rain, more recently drought and scorching temperatures. And it also seemed to be a similar situation with wildlife. The tree blossom and wild flowers have been amazing with every month some new blooms outrivalling those of the previous month’s.
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Now it seems July is to be the month of wasps. There are hundreds in the garden, indeed probably thousands, and they are everywhere. And if that isn’t bad enough, the very hot weather we’ve been having seems to have made them far more aggressive. Normally they do not prove to be troublesome until the fruit ripens in late summer, this year it’s different. And I’ve already been stung once this week which is very bad news for me – I suffer from a severe reaction, although never yet been hospitalised, fortunately. I keep my drugs and sprays with me – and a mobile phone, in case help is needed – and also keep my fingers tightly crossed. This, like the recent advice from a doctor to stay indoors, is not too much help for someone who earns their living by gardening.
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Fifteen wasp nests in four days has surely got to be a record and so I have been keeping the pest control man busy. It’s a pity to destroy them but better I get them first than the other way round! I remind myself that during the spring they live on aphids and the like and are, therefore, valuable pest controllers themselves. Then I remind myself of the pain, discomfort and swelling, and sometimes injections I get, and they have to go.
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I commended myself on my bravery, taking these photos, as the wasps went into the attack as the chemical jet entered their nest. But such is my devotion to get a new post out – I’m becoing a true blogger news hound!

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My heightend awareness of wasps this week made me also notice these holes in a deserted timber garage. They were the homes of a small colony of wood wasps. Unlike the common wasp which live communally in their hundreds (the largest of our nests turned out to be the size of a football), wood wasps are more solitary, each one occupying their own chamber.

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They are quite placid compared to their aggressive cousins and, I believe, unable to sting a human being. The largest ones look terrifying but this species was small, about half the size of the common wasp. There are about 500 species of solitary wasp in Britain and I can’t identify any of them. I felt totally at ease photographing them inches away and they completely ignored me. Perhaps word had got round what I did to them further down the secret valley!
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I’m now looking forward to the first frosts and a wasp free winter!

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Rain, Rain & even more Rain!

After all the scorching weather we had a little while ago, now it won’t stop raining. Suddenly temperatures dropped from the upper 80’sF (scorching for England!) by 20 degrees and, day after day, we have woken to grey skies and rain lashing the windows. There have been times when the sun breaks through to remind us that it is still mid summer and we can get on with our outdoor work in comfort.

The garden has been overdue for a tidy as working with other people’s gardens takes up most of our hours at this time of year. This weekend we were able to cut the tall hedges and they look a lot better for it – not a job I especially enjoy but a sense of satisfaction once done.

Hand clipping box hedges is a joy however, providing you have plenty of time for accuracy. There is nothing worse than a ragged, uneven finish to a formal hedge. Powered hedge trimmers rarely do a good enough job and the slow, rythmic sound of hedging shears is mesmeric.

I have heard that the dreaded box blight is in the area. Let’s hope that it doesn’t find any of ours!