Houses have their spring cleans, gardens their autumn clear-out. Personally, I don’t go over-board on my autumn clear-out too early, because if you dead-head everything in the borders, the poor garden birds are denied their seed larder for the winter. And rumour has it that this is going to be a hard one (although as I write, it’s warm and pouring with rain). So I make a gentle start, with a little light pruning.
In recent years it has been unusual for us to have even a light ground frost in September, which I’ve always regarded as the fourth month of summer. In fact, autumn doesn’t really get into its stride until October. By November we’re busy cutting things back, especially where they’re in any danger of snapping-off in the gales that tend to start about then. In mid-November we bring all the sheep down from the top land and separate the rams (tups) from the ewes. We do this after six weeks; otherwise lambing tends to drag on and on. So we now know that the very first lambs will appear on or about March 2nd and the last by April 14th, 2013. In reality, most will be born in the second, third and fourth weeks of March; thereafter, things will rapidly calm down. In our experience it’s very unusual to have any lambs born at all in the sixth week of lambing. This year we’ll be lambing 94 ewes.
Rams, indeed I think this probably applies to most male mammals, including humans, behave rather strangely when forcibly removed from female company. I suppose some men might sit around and stare moodily into the fire, but rams are very different. The ewes have gone (with barely, I might add, a backward glance), so the chaps immediately decide to fight each other – and it doesn’t matter who: fathers take on their sons, nephews their uncles. Either way, they’re all in for a good mutual bashing. So, directly after tupping has finished, you never, ever, put rams together in the same field, because if you do, they’ll charge at each other and one usually gets killed. Most farmers confine them closely for four or five days – so close that they can’t charge and head-butt. This doesn’t stop them trying, and in the process they’ll smash hurdles and rip the strongest rope. It’s no good even offering them water for at least a day – or they’ll destroy the bucket and trough. On the second day, they’ll usually take food and water and a few days later I sometimes enlarge a tightly confined pen. It varies from year to year, but I never release them back into their field after less than seven days confinement; sometimes, especially when they’re young and frisky, it can take twice that.
In November, I make a start on my winter pruning marathon. I usually begin with the espaliered apples and pears that line the path through the vegetable garden. In some years I do an initial pruning later in July, once the terminal buds have set, but this year I was too busy filming, so it didn’t get done. Anyhow, I’m nearly finished now – if the rain will ever stop. I don’t normally prune my fruit trees much, as I reckon it causes too many disease and congestion problems; but you don’t have any option with espaliers. So the aim is to produce nice spurs with fat blossom buds. Most people try to achieve short, compact spurs. I prefer them a bit longer, as it allows the sun to reach the fruit better and makes them easier to pick. It also makes it easier to spot the appearance of woolly aphid – a particular problem in heavy, clay soils.
As I get older, I try to vary the jobs I do around the garden, otherwise my muscles tend to set in a lump. So when I’m digging the vegetable garden (which will be in early December, once the frosts get underway in earnest), I’ll also start pruning the small ‘raised hedge’ formed by four pleached broad-leafed lime trees. We planted these trees seventeen years ago and they’ve been a very great success – and look wonderful in winter as dark, knotty beings – something weird out of an Arthur Rackham picture. They’ll be ready to cut-back as soon as their leaves fall, which is already well underway.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think of the autumn clear-out, as tidying-up after summer. No, it’s all about getting ready for the new year and the spring that follows. It’s a time for thinking ahead, for optimism. At the risk of sounding insensitive, I have to concede that I don’t really ‘do’ melancholy. I’d go mad if I did. Or write poetry…