I hate, loathe and detest unnecessary tidiness. Fine, be tidy in your workplace, or in the kitchen, where you need to know where certain key things are kept, but why is it that we English have to extend our tidiness to most other aspects of our lives? I can remember as a child being driven to London and looking at the suburban gardens as we passed them by. In early summer the daffodils that had been flowering a few weeks earlier, now had their leaves looped-up in neat little knots. At the time, I was just starting to get interested in gardening and I remember asking my father why people knotted-up their daffodil leaves. ‘They think it’s tidier’, came the reply. Then as an afterthought: ‘And of course you can cut closer to them with a mower.’ And of course he was right. I took another look: and each knotted-up daff protruded through an aggressively short lawn, whereas in our garden the daffs were planted in natural drifts where the grass was allowed to grow long and wasn’t cut back until later July, when the daff leaves had all died-back.
But this obsession with tidiness in our gardens can be terribly bad for wildlife. Hedges don’t need to be cut two or three times a year, not, that is, if you want to keep any nesting birds. I also don’t like to cut too many perennials’ seed heads off in the late summer or autumn, unless, that is, the seedlings can be very invasive (with us, Iris siberica is a real pest). We will tolerate a few Aster seedlings in the spring if it means that the sparrows and other finches have a good source of winter food. So our garden isn’t obsessively neat and tidy. I try to cut the lawn weekly during the peak of the growing season, but that’s a matter of self-preservation – miss a cut in June or July and the grass gets too long to cut without a scythe or a tractor. I also try to keep the lawn edges trimmed, if only because flower beds look much better if they’ve got a good, sharp edge; but even so, the edge-shears only come out three or at most four times a season. To be quite frank we’re not great ones for aggressively dead-heading anything, as we both like the look of seed heads, especially the nice fluffy ones you often get on clematis.
Meanwhile, back to the current year. As readers of this blog in Britain will know, it has been an extraordinarily warm autumn. We had our first ground frosts last week, no less. Normally by now – and we’re starting the run-up to Christmas – we’d have had several air frosts. Yesterday evening we ate the last courgettes! And in late November! I ask you.
We’re currently also enjoying the last of the autumn leaf colour and of course the flowering heads of tall grasses, such as pampas and molinia. The bright bark of the dogwoods is starting to be evident – an early sign of winter. And we’ve also been lighting fires for the past week. By way of contrast, last year we lit the first fire in mid-September. In the evening we’re regularly visited by a pair of buzzards who like to terrorise the pigeons and crows in the wood, where I’ve also been hearing the barks of Muntjac deer – so we have to keep the gates into the vegetable garden locked, as I’ve no intention of losing all our winter sprouts and cabbages to them, as happened two years ago.
And on the subject of vegetables, I’ve moved the four sacks of potatoes that I had stored in the cool of the barn into the back door porch, together with net sacks of onions and shallots. There’s also a concealed heavy-duty tractor battery hidden in the picture if you can spot it (batteries, old tractors and night-time frosts don’t mix). The canvas bag is a free advertisement for our local animal food and garden supplier in Holbeach. And very good they are too!
So do I dread the coming of winter, as seems so common these days? No, I don’t. I like the long evenings and the crackle of logs in the grate. And it’s a good excuse to have a nice malt whisky while reading a good book. Lately I’ve been deep into M.R. Hall’s wonderful complex novels about the Severn Vale Coroner, Jennie Cooper. Like Ian Rankin and P.D. James he demonstrates effortlessly that genre books can also be literature. So far I’ve read two of the series The Coroner (no. 1) and The Disappeared (no. 2) and I’m currently half-way through The Redeemed (no. 3), which I’m reading in Kindle on my brand new Mini iPad. It has taken me about 6 weeks to learn how to drive it, but at last I’m slowly getting the hang of it (are my fingers unusually fat, or do other people have the same problems?). These days I only rarely swear at it, and threaten to hurl it onto the muck heap. But no, it’s the solution to our jammed-full book-case problems. And it’s also rather good fun. I even took a peek at Mylie Cyrus, as there has been so much fuss about her (and I quite fancied a cheap thrill). But I was horribly disappointed. Is it just me, or is she totally artificial and about as sexy as the big yellow plastic duck that takes up most of our bathroom?