Last days of summer – first published 3 September 2014

The first Sunday afternoon in September 2014 was spent in the garden making the most of some unexpected sun after days of rain. Before I settled on the lounger I’d been up to the village to get milk and fresh vegetables for dinner and noticed the last of the roses on the Big Hill were fading. There had also been an unexpected and fortuitous encounter with a small blue butterfly who didn’t seem to mind having his picture taken. It’s unusual to see one so late in the year so maybe he was tired after a long summer sipping nectar. Summer was certainly coming to an end.

3 September 2014

On the way home from my shopping trip in the village a bunch of grapes hanging over the wall of the old doctor’s house were beginning to ripen. This made me wonder about growing grapes in my own little garden. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to eat my own grapes fresh off the vine. When I got back Commando had been busy in the shed. The shelves he put up are slowly filling with tools and he’s put hooks on the walls. The old shed is slowly emptying out and soon we will be ready to pull it down. Maybe then I can think about grape vines.

Some of the sunflowers are going to seed but I think I’ve had good value from my small packet of seeds and maybe, if I’m lucky, the birds will leave some for me to add to my granola. Beside them the bee hotel is still, sadly, devoid of bees but I wasn’t really expecting too much this year. We put it up too late really but, hopefully, by the spring it will have weathered and will look attractive to all the mason bees in the area. I can’t wait to see the first plugged up hole.

Another packet of seeds that have earned their keep are the nasturtiums. Every time I think I’ve seen the last flower more appear. They’ve kept my pots looking bright all summer but I’m sure they will soon be over. Needless to say I will be planting more next spring. In the dappled evening shade of the palm the unidentified squash or melon have lots of flowers hidden beneath hairy leaves. So far none of them seem to be developing into fruits though so I’m still none the wiser.

Signs of the onset of autumn are everywhere. Pretty white flowers on the garlic chives attract lots of bees and a few things that look like bees but aren’t. We seem to have a lot of drone flies, Eristalis tenax, in the garden this year and they really like the garlic chive flowers. They look like bees at first glance and I guess it serves them well, protecting them from predators. Their larvae, the rat tailed maggot lives in water polluted with organic matter, feeding on bacteria. Maybe all the rain we’ve had has led to this population explosion. I’m not complaining because they are good pollinators.

In the front garden the ice plant, Sedum spectabile, flowers are slowly pinkening, a sure sign that autumn is well on the way. The dried out flower heads will provide plenty of interest in the garden through the winter and I think I prefer them to the flowers themselves. Close by the leaves of the berberris seem brighter than ever, a last gasp of colour before they fall. Most berberris varieties make up for a lack of winter leaves with bright berries, sadly, this one, berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea, does not but the colour of the summer and autumn leaves almost makes up for it.

There are berries aplenty on the cotoneaster. I’m not sure I’ve seen a year with quite as many and more are ripening every day. They will provide lots of winter food for the birds. It looks like a good year for berries on the holly too, although for some reason, many of the leaves are spineless this year. The old wives would have it that a bumper crop of holly berries is warning of a cold winter. Personally I think it has more to do with a mild wet spring and a wet warm summer. We shall see.

Amongst all the flowers coming to an end there is one just coming into bud. The gladioli, planted many years ago by Mother, have put up their first flower spike. I’m looking forward to showy flowers soon. Most people dig up their gladioli corms when they’ve finished flowering to stop them rotting over winter. Ours have been planted and left and have been giving us flowers for more than forty years. I’m glad to see this year will not be an exception.

While the gladioli are just thinking about putting on a show other flowers are long gone but not forgotten. Under the palm I found some bluebell seed heads dried to papery cups with silky insides. They aren’t the only dried seed heads brightening up areas of the garden either. The decaying balls of poppy heads were so pretty I cut them, sprinkled the seed about and put them in my dried flower arrangement indoors.

Another flower that is prolific is nigella or love in the mist. The pretty blue flowers spring up all over the garden in any little space they can find. I even find them growing between the cracks in the path. They brighten random spots from spring to late summer and now, when the last flowers are fading, I get to enjoy the seed heads turning from green to purple and finally drying out to spill the little black seeds within that make them rattle when you shake them.

Nigella is called by many names, fennel flower, nutmeg flower, black caraway, Roman coriander and even black cumin although the real black cumin is actually Carum Bulbocastanum. All this will give you a clue that the seeds can be used in cooking. In fact it is used in the spice mixture paanch phoran and alone in a great many Bengali recipes, especially in peshawari naan bread. The pungent, bitter taste goes well in confectionary and liquors but Americans may recognise it as an ingredient in the string cheese, called majdouleh in the Middle East.

In an apothecary in Morocco I was shown how to roll the seed in a handkerchief, rub it on my hand until it became warm and sniff it to cure a headache. It seemed to work, apparently, it also cures a cold. The apothecary called it, sanouj and said it was the cure for all diseases except death. There is some truth in this story because the peppery vapours do dry out a cold and the seeds have been proven to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, hypotensive and anti-diabetic properties amongst other things. I’d say that does cover just about everything except death. Even so, use with caution as too many can be toxic.

Summer is quickly turning to autumn. Soon the colours around me will all come from turning leaves. I don’t think I’m alone in wishing the warm days could go on a little longer.

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Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

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