For much of October we can play at autumn. We get golden sunlight, tapestry-like hillsides, morning mists, all without any great drop in temperature: a gentle slide into everything good about autumn. We light the fire because we can, because it’s October, not because we are so cold that we have to. The countryside is ravishing, and ripening before our eyes, every hedgerow glistening with lipstick-red hips and purple elderberries, hazelnuts and walnuts and glossy sweet chestnuts in their hedgehog casings, every tree a different shade. The year’s spiders are now fully grown, and are suddenly everywhere, stretching their webs over hedges and across the garden path, the fine strands breaking across your face each morning.
Night and cold are slowly becoming dominant
Gather in nuts and logs and final crops, because towards the end of the month things start to feel more serious. Frosts arrive and the clocks go back, and we remember what this ripening is all about. The Anglo-Saxons called this month Winterfylleth, a word composed of ‘winter’ and ‘full moon’, and they thought that winter began on October’s full moon. Prematurely pessimistic, perhaps, but night and cold are slowly becoming dominant.
Photo by Fischer Twins on Unsplash
In the night sky this month
21st & 22nd Orionids meteor shower, the dust from Halley’s Comet, radiant from the area above Orion. The nearly full moon means only the brightest tracks will be visible. 26th Venus changes from being an evening planet to a morning planet, but will be lost in the glare of the sun for the next few weeks.
Constellation of the month – Andromeda
Attached to the great square of Pegasus – starting the evening in the east and rising up to the zenith by 11 p.m. – is Andromeda. It is named after the mythical princess and daughter of Cassiopeia, whose zigzag-shaped constellation is nearby. Its brightest star, Alpha Andromedae, is a binary star that is also often considered part of Pegasus. On a clear night without too much light pollution you should be able to pick out a misty spot just above Andromeda with the naked eye, and certainly through binoculars. This is the Andromeda Galaxy, which has been estimated to contain a trillion stars, around twice as many as our Milky Way. The Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are expected to collide in 4.5 billion years, eventually merging together to form a giant galaxy.
October can be highly tempestuous and stormy, with wintry storms quickly closing down any lingering Indian summer
Like September, October can bring glorious reminders of summer as winds come in from the south, with only misty mornings and dark evenings hinting that change is coming. By the end of the month the sun travels to only just over 30 degrees above the horizon, which means that its light reaches us through a greater slice of atmosphere than it does at midsummer, accounting for its rich and golden hue. October can also be highly tempestuous and stormy, with wintry storms quickly moving in and closing down any thoughts of a lingering Indian summer. Frosts often appear on higher ground in northern areas at the beginning of the month, and creep into more central areas by the end of the month.
Average temperatures (°c): London 13, Glasgow 10
Average sunshine hours per day: London 3, Glasgow 3
Average days rainfall: London 15, Glasgow 24
Average rainfall total (mm): London 71, Glasgow 110
During the course of October, day length decreases by:
1 hour and 54 minutes, to 9 hours and 54 minutes (London)
2 hours and 14 minutes, to 9 hours and 18 minutes (Glasgow)
Average sea temperature
Planting by the moon
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
• Collect up fallen leaves and stuff them into their own compost bin or perforated bin bags, then water and forget them. In a year or two you will have crumbly leaf mould.
• Frosts are coming. Put away any tender plants that you want to survive winter. Pelargoniums, succulents and aeoniums all need a cool, bright and frost-free place: a porch, a cool spare room or a slightly heated greenhouse.
• Plant spring bulbs. Get daffodils in as soon as possible, and crocuses, scillas, fritillaries and muscari not long after.
Glut of the month – winter squash and pumpkins
Get winter squash and pumpkins in ahead of the frosts. Cure the skins somewhere dry and sunny and they will store well.
• Sweet and sour treatment lends winter squash some welcome sharpness. Heat 1 tbsp of caster sugar with 2 tbsp of vinegar until syrupy, then pour over roasted squash pieces and top with chilli flakes, or with feta, toasted walnuts and mint.
• Bake pieces of winter squash in a big tray with whole tomatoes, quartered onions and a packet of thick sausages.
• You will make squash soup, there is no escaping it. Enliven it with a topping of crispy fried onions, strips of bacon, slivers of Parmesan or toasted pumpkin seeds, or all four.
Garden task – save your lawn
Your lawn looks awful after a summer of children and dogs trampling it, or drought, or flooding, or just plain old neglect. We don’t pay much attention to our lawns, but they carry on serving us faithfully anyway, providing a carpet on which to walk barefoot and roll about in the summer, and a square of vivid green to gaze upon when all else is brown in winter. With very little trouble it can be beautiful next summer: soft and springy and with all bare patches sprouting green again.
In October the ground is warm from a summer of heat and moist from autumn rains. Grass seeds germinate easily, and while colder weather soon comes along and stops top growth, the roots keep on growing and spreading all autumn and winter, creating a strong foundation from which new growth can spring when the weather warms next year.
The lawn will rise, phoenix-like, next spring
For a full autumnal lawn service you will need a spring-tine rake; your mower; a garden fork; sharp sand and compost, mixed half and half; a hard-bristled brush; grass seed; some pieces of horticultural fleece and some tent pegs. Start by energetically going over the whole lawn with the rake, scratching out dead grass and moss from the roots. Now mow, and remove the clippings. Push your garden fork straight down into the ground at intervals of about a foot, as deep as you can, then brush in the sand and compost (particularly do this on compacted areas such as by the gate and goal mouths). Finally, scratch at the surface of the bare patches and sow thickly with seed. Water well and pin over a piece of horticultural fleece or fine net to keep the birds off, just until the seed germinates. The lawn will look truly awful – its very worst – but it will rise, phoenix-like, next spring.
There is still plenty of greenhouse veg around – aubergines, tomatoes and chillies – though their season is drawing to a close as colder weather arrives. The more unusual root vegetables of the year are now ready: salsify, scorzonera and Jerusalem artichokes, as well as there being plenty of beetroots, carrots and parsnips around. Brassicas move into prime position, and there will be kale and cabbage no matter what the weather does.
• This is wild mushroom season. Look for ceps, chanterelles and puffballs in specialist delis. White truffles are in season.
• There is a great abundance of tree fruit in October: apples, pears, quinces, medlars. Grapes are maturing and you can still find the last figs and blackberries.
• It is hunting season, and you may find duck, goose, grouse, guinea fowl, hare, pheasant, rabbit and venison in specialist butchers.
• This is the end of the mackerel season. There is plenty of hake, lemon sole and sardines. Oysters are back in season.
Ingredient of the month – apples to store
Some apples – particularly the earliest maturing varieties – are flighty things, built for eating within a few days, but declining in quality beyond that. Others mature and develop in storage. This slow ripening process gives some of the finest and most complex flavours. They are well worth waiting for: keepers, if you like. Choose and plant long-storing varieties and you could still be eating your own apples at wassailing time and beyond. Ashmead’s Kernel develops pear drop and citrus undertones as it matures, and is good for eating or cider-making; Cornish Gillyflower is a Victorian variety which slowly takes on a rich, sweet, clove-like fragrance; Sturmer Pippin can be left hanging on the tree until January, and is at its best in February or March, when it is sweet and crisp. Eat the windfalls now as they will not store, but pick and wrap the best of the crop individually in newspaper, and store until you need them.
It is crumble season. This is a recipe you can use for apples now, but can also adapt all year round for whatever fruit you have in abundance. Almost every element of it is changeable, and swapping the type of flour, sugar or rubble can make this an entirely different dessert. Muck about. It does for between 500–700 g fruit, either placed in the pie dish raw with the juice of half a lemon and a couple of tablespoons of sugar, or precooked (for harder fruits such as apples and quince).
75 g butter
100 g flour/ground almonds
75 g sugar
100 g rubbly stuff: rolled oats, chopped nuts
2 tsp spice/zest
Rub the butter into the flour or ground almonds until it resembles rough breadcrumbs, then stir in the sugar, rubble and spice. Sprinkle it over the fruit, pat it down lightly, then bake for 30–45 minutes at 190°c/375°f/gas mark 5.
• Apple and sultana filling with wholemeal flour, oats, cinnamon, light soft brown sugar and pecan topping
• Pear and quince filling with spelt flour, muscovado sugar, ground clove and chopped walnut topping
• Rhubarb filling with demerara sugar, ground ginger, chopped stem ginger and orange zest topping
• Plum filling with wholemeal flour, ground almonds, sliced almonds and golden caster sugar topping
• Apricot, strawberry and vanilla filling with white flour, oats, caster sugar and lemon zest topping
And so on…
Apple brandy hot toddy
To warm you up on the long evenings. Makes 2.
360 ml cider
1 tsp honey
1 stick cinnamon
100 ml apple brandy or Calvados
Divide the apple brandy between two heatproof glasses or mugs, then take two slices from the lemon and drop one into each. Heat the cider, honey, cinnamon and the juice of the rest of the lemon in a small saucepan for a few minutes, then pour it over the apple brandy and drink while hot.
A brief history of time changing
This month brings the most brutal manifestation of our homogenised time keeping. We know we are slipping towards winter but the abrupt end of British Summer Time makes the descent almost shocking, like a curtain dropping. Time wasn’t always mucked about with like this; it was simply what the sun said it was. Solar noon moved across the country, east to west, so Norwich was several minutes ahead of London, Oxford five minutes behind it, Leeds six minutes behind, Bristol ten minutes behind, and so on, with town clocks across the country all displaying their own local time. It was the railways that changed all of this. With their quick journey times between time zones, almanacs had to be printed alongside timetables to avoid accidents and allow passengers to make connections, but the potential for problems was huge. Slowly but surely through the 1800s each of the railways gradually adopted London time. In 1880 the unified standard time for Great Britain was made law.
So, relatively speaking, the country’s time had only recently been brought into line when the idea arose to change it for summer. Perhaps it was the realisation that time can be played with, and bent to our own convenience, but in 1905 William Willett began campaigning for the hour change to allow for greater enjoyment of summer evening hours. British Summer Time was finally introduced in 1916, a year after his death. This is the moment in the year when we stop playing and revert back to something closer to the true astronomical time – give or take ten minutes or so – and we do feel the difference. Raise a glass of something autumnal and warming in memory of Willett, and of all those stolen summer hours, to ease the pain.
Look out for:
• Blackberries are all but over, but hazelnuts are ripening, if you can beat the squirrels to them. Look out for forageable walnut trees and sweet chestnut trees in parks and parkland, and take a bucket. Sloes are prominent and easy to pick now, but they are at their best after the first frost.
• In damp weather this is prime month for fungi. Go on a woodland hunt, but do not pick to eat unless you are with an expert.
• In the Scottish Highlands and across some of England’s national parks, the red deer rut is underway.
• Birds are almost silent now with the exception of robins, which sing their melancholy song as they begin staking out and protecting next year’s territory.
• House martins have flown away by the end of October. Redwings and fieldfares arrive from Scandinavia and make use of the berries in countryside hedges.
Autumn colour is reaching its peak towards the end of the month, as deciduous trees gradually stop producing the green chlorophyll that helps them to produce food from sunlight, and close down for the winter. The absence of chlorophyll reveals a different colour in every tree. Beech forests turn a beautiful warm copper, and birch forests buttery yellow. In forests dominated by one species even the air seems to take on a glow. Hedgerows turn a patchwork of yellow field maple, brown hazel, and yellow wych elm. A few species, including some of the more spectacular coloured Japanese maples that fill arboretums and gardens, are often at their best in November, blustery storms willing.
The Almanac by Lia Leendertz is published by Unbound
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