Friday 15 November 2013

Autumn Leaves and Soil like Gingerbread...

On the theory that example is better than precept, I went out yesterday to rake leaves. This is a job that must be done slowly, in a reflective mood. Also, one must first find the rake. I found it, final, under the pile of leaves raked up last weekend, so the visiting small cousins would have a place in which to practice standing on their hands.

Next, one must lean on the rake handle, admiring the scenery, the magnitude of leaf-fall and one’s own courage, the sunny autumn day, and life in general.

November in the garden can be damp, dull and drear, but I love the way that in Rural Free, A Farmwife’s Almanac of Country Living, author Rachel Peden manages to link the life of the tree with her own life as a farmer’s wife in Indiana, and how she turns what could be a boring, repetitive task into a meditation, moving from past to present to future, reaching the conclusion that perhaps, after all, she and the tree have both left their mark in their world. 
 Lovely leaves - at the moment they're covering much of the
Castle Grounds in Tamworth.
I think Rachel is quite right, with her reflections, and found myself thinking along similar lines when I walked in the Castle Grounds earlier this week. There were great drifts of leaves piles up under trees, and in the little,  corners where no-one goes, and ridges and furrows of them along the edges of the paths, and a scattering of raggedy yellows, browns and reds blowing across the lawns. It was a sunny day with a gentle breeze, and leaves were falling from the trees like great golden snowflakes and slowly floating to the ground, which was quite magical, and I stood and watched, and thought about how the trees have changed over the year, from the bare branches outlines against the sky and the snow at the start of the year, through the green haze of spring to the lush growth of summer - and now they are returning to that earlier, dormant state.

Rachel goes on to explain:

While my leaf mountain grew, I thought over some of the summer’s events that occurred while those trees were growing old. A tree’s fiscal year begins with the separation of one crop of leaves from its branches, where already by that time the tight, pale-brown knobs of next year’s leaves are formed, to swell and shrink all winter, according to the fluctuations of temperature and moisture.

Raking up long swaths I reflect that the tree works all year to produce this annual accomplishment, for me to scoop up and carry to the midden behind the barn, where leaves will grow soggy and disintegrate. For the tree, leaves are like my daily chores, of meals, bed-making, floor-sweeping, laundry, which take perpetual energy and leave no record.

This started out as a Garden Gaze piece, looking to see what gardening gurus think we should be doing this month, but I seem to have been led astray (up the garden path, perhaps). Rachel's book is not about gardening - it's about her life in general, and was published in 1961, arising out of the columns she wrote for a newspaper during the 1950s, and it’s an absolute joy. I discovered it through Nan at Letters from a Hill Farm, (thank you Nan!) and it is an absolute joy. Similar in tone and outlook is Still Meadow Daybook, by Gladys Taber, who also wrote press articles about her life on a Connecticut farm at a similar period. Nan spent a year exploring the women’s lives and writing, and you can find her posts here – do pop over and take a look.

Unlike Rachel, Gladys has no gardening advice to offer this month, but she gives us this wonderful view of the countryside:

After the leaves come down, the countryside has an open look. New vistas appear, hills unseen when summer’s wealth of green is spread, now stand, blue and hazy, in the distance. In the cropped fields the browns and copper and smoky tan make a smoky symphony, not as dramatic as the blaze of October, but lovely to look at.

Autumn colour features large in a piece by Katherine Swift, who is entranced by the view from her window – her account of the glorious trees she can see reads like a description of bonfire night. Her trees send up 'incendiary' rockets of scarlet and gold, they they flush, darken, fizz and collapse 'into glowing embers', until they're finally extinguished by wind and snow.  However, she has some sound (and reassuring) advice about bulbs in The Morville Year, telling us:

And there is still time to plant those bulbs. I have often been reduced to planting bulbs at Christmas or even on New Year’s Day, and they seem to come to no harm. There is even an argument deliberately delaying planting now that our autumns and early winters are so mild and wet. According to tulip-grower Steve Thompson, tulips will not start to make roots until the soil temperature drops below 520F  (110C), so if planted too early, the argument goes, they will sit dormant in wet soil, at the mercy of slugs and susceptible to diseases.

Don’t worry, she says. Chill out. I find this cheering. Even the Provincial Lady is ahead of me when it comes to bulbs – remember how Lady Boxe chastised her for planting indoor bulbs late? But the PL got them into pots on November 7, whereas mine are still reclining (minus soil) in old plastic dishes in the Futility Room. Note to Self, as the PL would say, Must Plant Bulbs.
I thought I'd left it too late to plant bulbs, but according
to Katherine Swift I should still be OK, so I'm going to
stick them in pots tomorrow...
Finally, I can’t resist Karel Capek waxing lyrical in The Gardener’s Year, about the joys of digging and the right kind of soil… my grandfather would have enjoyed this, he was a great believer in the importance of digging.

Getting dug in: An illustration from The
Gardener's Year by Capek's brother Josef.
Yes, in November the soil should be turned over and loosened: to lift it with a full spade gives you a feeling as appetizing and gratifying as if you lifted food with a full ladle, with a full spoon. A good soil, like good food, must not be either too fat, or heavy, or cold, or wet, or dry, or greasy, or hard, or gritty, or raw; it ought to be like bread, like gingerbread, like a cake, like leavened dough; it should crumble, but not break into lumps; under the spade it ought to crack, but not to squelch; it must not make slabs, or blocks, or honeycombs, or dumplings; but, when you turn it over with a full spade, it ought to breathe with pleasure and fall into a fine and puffy tilth. That is a tasty and edible soil, cultured and noble, deep and moist, permeable, breathing and soft – in short, a good soil is like good people, and as is well known there is nothing better in this vale of tears.


  1. Lovely post. Wouldn't we all love soil like gingerbread?

    1. I'd rather eat gingerbread than dig soil! Sadly, the earth in my garden is not like that!

  2. And, once again, I've given away a book I now wish I had! I had one of Rachel Peden's books for years but didn't know anything about her. I was weeding through a box of books and decided I'd probably never read it. Now I wish I had it! I've been a big fan of Gladys Taber's for years, since she wrote a magazine columns. I collect her books and love the cozy, chatty feeling of her books about the country, the dogs, Jill.

    1. Oh Joan, what a shame you gave a Rachel Peden book away. If you like Gladys Taber you would like Rachel - she has a similar style, cosy and chatty, able to appreciate the small pleasures of everyday life which are often overlooked, and very observant about nature. I really like them both, but they don't seem to be well known here in the UK, which is a shame.

  3. my partner has just asked me today what I want for Christmas - I think Rachels book sounds like it's going to join my list. I'm not so sure about the joys of digging thouh - I lean towards the no dig philosophy. While you guys appear to be enjoying the colour of fall - I'm taking in the colours of late spring and summer - either way - a big deep breath and time to watch nature brings much joy all year round.

  4. How lovely! I've never heard of Rachel Peden but I do know Indiana. This sounds like the perfect book for me.