If you want a resolution to stick, make it in September. There is a new-broom feel about September, a sense that it is time to stop mucking about and to get down to business. There is historical precedent for this feeling, a sort of administrative shaking down that came with the completion of the harvest, and with the ending of long, warm days and the advent of colder, darker ones. If summer must end, and if we must go back to school, let’s do so with crisp white shirts, polished shoes, a brand new pencil case and some serious good intentions.
This is a naturally busy time: preparing for hibernation isn’t easy
The Anglo-Saxons called September Haligmonath, holy month, or the month of offerings to give thanks for the harvest. Harvesting, bottling and preserving are still in full swing for a little while at least. Going back to school in September can feel cruel, as the weather is often surprisingly calm and summery. Gold is slowly becoming the predominant colour: in the fields; on the first of the trees; in the harvest moon, hanging low, large and yellow in the sky. But despite the lazy feel to the countryside this is a naturally busy time: preparing for hibernation isn’t easy. There is work to be done.
Constellation of the month – Cygnus
Cygnus, the Swan, is one of the constellations in the Summer Triangle, its brightest star, Deneb, forming one of the three points. But even though summer is slipping away, elegant Cygnus can be seen high in the sky up close to the zenith at around 11 p.m. In fact, if you know where to look – low in the east in the morning sky in spring, and low in the west in the evening sky in autumn – you can find it year round. Deneb means ‘tail’, and Sadr, the name of the star at the centre of the constellation, means ‘breast’. Albireo, a binary star of contrasting orange and blue hues, is the ‘Beak Star’. It is well worth looking at through good binoculars.
The 1st of September marks the start of meteorological autumn, and the days noticeably begin to shorten following the autumnal equinox on the 23rd. But September is often surprisingly beautiful and can put summer to shame, only deteriorating into rainy weather later in the month. The thundery showers of summer are in decline as temperatures drop, and the autumnal and wintery westerlies that bring wet weather from across the Atlantic are strengthening, but sometimes there is a little golden spell in between. Nights can be long enough for mists to form, particularly towards the end of the month, and the first gales of autumn – equinoctial gales – can arrive, the remnants of Atlantic and Caribbean hurricanes.
Average temperatures (°c): London 17, Glasgow 13
Average sunshine hours per day: London 5, Glasgow 4
Average days rainfall: London 15, Glasgow 20
Average rainfall total (mm): London 49, Glasgow 80
During the course of September, day length decreases by: 1 hour and 53 minutes, to 11 hours and 41 minutes (London) 2 hours and 13 minutes, to 11 hours and 37 minutes (Glasgow)
On the autumnal equinox on the 23rd, night and day are the same length. It is one of only two days a year (the other being the vernal equinox in March) when the sun rises precisely due east and sets due west.
Average sea temperature
In early autumn the bird population of estuaries swells as birds arrive from the continent and take advantage of the insect-rich mudflats. This is an excellent time of year to visit estuaries for birdwatching. Visit at high tide, when the birds are pushed into smaller areas of mud at closer to the shore. Take binoculars and look out for oystercatchers, godwits and redshanks.
Planting by the moon
Full moon to 3rd quarter: Harvest crops for immediate eating. Harvest fruit.
3rd quarter to new moon: Prune. Harvest for storage. Fertilise and mulch the soil.
New moon to 1st quarter: Sow crops that develop below ground. Dig the soil.
1st quarter to full moon: Sow crops that develop above ground. Plant seedlings and young plants.
Full moon to 3rd quarter: Harvest crops for immediate eating. Harvest fruit.
Jobs in the garden
Keep camellias and rhododendrons well watered as they are forming next spring’s flower buds and will drop them or make fewer if their roots are dry.
Tip mints out of pots and loosen a few of the white roots spiralling around the outside. Snip these off and lay them on the surface of a pot of compost and cover lightly. Keep watered, and you will soon have new plants to grow on your windowsill in winter when outdoor plants have died down.
Time for ripening tomatoes is running out. Count four trusses of tomatoes on each plant and cut off any above this, or six if you are growing in a greenhouse or polytunnel, then cut away leaves that are shading remaining fruits.
Glut of the month – damsons
These rich and sour little plum-like fruits arrive all at once in great quantity in hedgerows and in gardens, and will spoil after just a few days sitting around in buckets and bags in the kitchen. Be ready with the preserving kit.
Damsons make the very best jam of the year, rich and sharp in flavour and deep purple in colour. Wash 1 1/2 kg damsons and place in a pan with 450 ml water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes, pushing the fruits against the edge occasionally to loosen flesh from stone. Fish out the stones as they rise to the surface (resign yourself to not getting them all), add 1 4/5 kg sugar, heat gently and stir until dissolved, then boil until the temperature reaches 105°c. Cool slightly, pour into sterilised jars, and seal.
Make damson cheese, our native equivalent to membrillo, a sliceable preserve to serve with cheese. Slowly simmer 2 kg damsons with a splash of water until they are completely soft, then rub through a sieve or colander to remove the stones and skins. For every 500 ml of puree add 350 g sugar and then simmer and stir for up to an hour until the mixture thickens enough that you can briefly draw a clear line along the bottom of the pan. Pour into oiled plastic containers to set.
Small bottles of damson vodka make excellent Christmas presents. Fill a large Kilner jar with 1 kg damsons, 500 g sugar and 1 l vodka. Seal and put away, revisiting it to shake it occasionally. It will be ready by Christmas, or even better by the following one.
Garden task – force bulbs for Christmas
You can plant bulbs every couple of weeks throughout winter, but here is the timetable to hit Christmas:
• 15th–29th September: Prepared hyacinths. Most need around 10 weeks in the cool and dark and then three weeks in the light. (Note: some varieties need less time than this; check when buying and count back from Christmas day.) Bring them out of the gloom when the shoots are a few centimetres tall and you can see the embryonic flower within.
• 15th October–13th November: Hippeastrum bulbs. They do not need a period of chilling or of dark. Pot them into small pots, half the bulb above the soil level. Place on a cool, sunny windowsill and turn as they grow.
• 27th November–11th December: Paperwhites. The easiest and quickest of the lot, with beautifully scented, pale cream-coloured flowers. Pot up, water and grow on a sunny windowsill.
There are so many vegetables in season this month. All of the Mediterranean vegetables are at their best now: tomatoes and aubergines are reaching their brief and delicious glut, and chillies are ripe and ready for picking. Runner beans, French beans, cucumbers, sweetcorn, beetroot, broccoli, carrots, salad leaves, main crop potatoes, and more are ready. Turnips, leeks, kale and other autumn/winter crops are starting to come in too. There is an embarrassment of riches.
Fruits of the months include plums, blackberries, apples, pears and autumn raspberries. Figs are now ripe and juicy, and there are plenty of melons, nectarines and peaches to be had. In the hedgerow look for damsons, elderberries and blackberries.
Cobnuts can be picked or bought while still green and fresh.
Herbs are plentiful, including parsley, oregano, thyme, basil and coriander.
Grouse, partridge, duck, goose and guinea fowl are coming into season.
Crab, scallops, lobster, hake, megrim sole, sardines, mackerel and plaice are all abundant.
Ingredient of the month – goose
It was once as common to eat goose on Michaelmas Day as it now is to eat turkey at Christmas. Birds were hatched in spring, raised all summer, and turned out to graze and fatten up on the stubble of the fields once the harvest was in, and so they became inextricably linked to the Michaelmas end-of-harvest celebrations. The custom fell out of favour as fewer lives were linked so closely to the harvest, but there has been a small resurgence in the tradition of the Michaelmas goose in recent years, and it is certainly at its best now. The meat is something halfway between white chicken meat and red meat, far richer and more flavourful than chicken or turkey. The fat, too, is packed with flavour and makes the very best roast potatoes. Nowadays many geese are raised in factory farming conditions, so take care to source a free-range, organic bird or one that has been hunted in the wild. The goose-hunting season begins on 1st September and ends on 31st January.
Chutney is one of many Indian foods that became absorbed into British cuisine during and following colonisation. And like other Indian foods, chutney underwent a transformation as it travelled. In India chutney is a freshly made spicy and savoury relish served at the side of a dish; here it means a cupboard preserve of vegetables or fruits slow-cooked in spices, vinegar and sugar. Far less healthy than the original perhaps, but an essential recipe to have under your belt to deal with the gluts of September, and to keep you in cheese and pickle sandwiches for the rest of the year.
The basic chutney ratio is 12:4:2 of produce:vinegar:sugar, so for instance 3 kg fruits and vegetables, 1 l malt vinegar, 500 g sugar, as below. You can reduce the amount of sugar if using mainly fruits, and reduce the amount of vinegar if using very acidic produce such as tomatoes.
3 kg vegetables, chopped to a roughly uniform size (include some apples and some onions as a rule, and some sultanas if you like them)
500 g soft brown sugar
2 tsp salt
1 l malt vinegar
1 1/2 cm fresh ginger, grated
A piece of muslin, tied around: 1 tsp mustard seeds, 1 tsp allspice berries, a few coriander seeds, 1 bay leaf, half a cinnamon stick, two whole cloves
Put all of the ingredients into a large preserving pan, bring to the boil, then simmer for around two hours, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are soft and the consistency is thick, and a wooden spoon drawn across the base of the pan briefly leaves a clear line. Remove the muslin, pour the chutney into sterilised jars, and seal. Leave to mature for several months before using.
Imam biyaldi – Swooning imam
Aubergines are ripe and perhaps even in glut if you have been a good gardener. So make the most of them. In this luxurious Turkish dish, aubergine is lavished with the two things it loves best: good olive oil and time. Vegetables cooked this way are known as zeytinyaglı (with olive oil), and eaten at room temperature with plenty of bread to soak up the oil and juices, perfect for a late-summer lunch.
Slice the aubergines in half lengthways, leaving the imam’s ‘hat’ in place
9 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 onions, finely sliced
6 garlic cloves, sliced
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 tsp paprika
2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
Salt and pepper
Fresh mint, chopped
Slice the aubergines in half lengthways, leaving the imam’s ‘hat’ in place. Scoop out a length of the inside of each half, dice, and set aside for later. Heat 2 tbsp of the olive oil in a frying pan and fry the halves of aubergine on each side for several minutes, until they start to soften, then set them aside. Put a couple more tablespoons of oil into the pan and fry the chopped aubergine with the onion. After about 5 minutes add the garlic, then cook all until softened. Add the tomatoes, paprika and pomegranate molasses and simmer together for 5 minutes, then add salt and pepper to taste. Jigsaw the aubergines together, cut side up, in a frying pan and fill the cavities with the sauce. Pour 100 ml of water and the rest of the olive oil (about 5 tbsp) into the pan and bring it to the boil, then turn the heat down low and cover with a lid or kitchen foil. Simmer for around 45 minutes. The aubergines should be slippery-soft. The flavours improve if this dish is left to sit and meld, so eat later, cold or at room temperature, sprinkled with the mint.
Look out for:
Perennial plants begin to die down to their roots. Seed heads are now the most beautiful things in the garden, though late-flowering garden plants become an important source of pollen for bees and butterflies. Ivy begins to flower now and will provide into winter.
Trees and shrubs start to give hints of autumn colour. Ash, beech, sweet chestnut and horse chestnut are among the first to show colour changes. Sycamore and maple seeds helicopter to the ground and conkers start to fall.
Hips and haws take over from flowers in the hedgerows, and sloes, blackberries and elder are ripening all the time.
Wasps become problematic. They have been around all year, but in late summer their queen stops giving them sweet rewards for their work, and so they come hunting for jam sandwiches and lemonade. Crane flies, better known as daddy longlegs, appear in September too.
This is the start of the mushroom season. Look out for giant puffballs in fields, which when young and fresh are delicious sliced and fried in butter.
Food is plentiful for birds at the moment, but it is a good idea to start feeding this month, so that they know where to find it when it is scarce.
This is a huge month for bird movements, as many summer migrants set off for warmer places. Estuaries and mudflats act as stopping-off points.
Hedgehogs are feeding themselves up ahead of hibernation. Put out food (dog food isn’t bad; milk and bread are terrible) and leave lots of twigs, dead leaves and debris in the garden.
Gatekeeper butterflies, common blue butterflies and speckled wood butterflies are still around.
The Almanac by Lia Leendertz is published by Unbound
Want more great Boundless content in your inbox every Sunday? Sign up to the free, weekly newsletter, here.