Mistle thrushes are arriving in garrulous flocks to feast on the red berries of the yew trees. As they stake out their territory the clamour is unmistakable. Little else in the garden, except the yews, seems to appeal to them so we rarely see them here apart from yew berry time. They are large and confident thrushes, descending on the garden like a raiding party, and if for some reason I haven’t heard them before I see them, I always know they are here by the sticky scattering of yew seeds left lying around the base of the trees. The seeds are poisonous and therefore pass intact through the birds’ digestive system; the juicy berry flesh is what they are really after.
These fleshy feeds are commonplace around the garden just now. The castle’s resident guinea fowl leave marrows neatly hollowed-out, and wasps are deftly excavating the crop of unripened pears, leaving behind only the skins of fruits that soon harden to shells in the autumn sun. And on the subject of crops, flesh and food, it seems a long time ago, although only eighteen years have passed, since the gardener and chauffeur laid out sheep and geese on the bishop’s kitchen table to butcher and prepare them for the freezer. The chauffeur, Alan, was an ex-Royal Marine and also a butcher to trade. On his non-driving days, he was in charge of grass cutting, keeping the sides of the castle drive neat and tidy while his little brown terrier trotted up and down beside the mower. During these years, bagpipe music drifted over Rose Castle garden in the evenings as he stood outside Chauffeur’s Cottage to practise his pipe band sets. Reminding us of those happy and musical days here, it was Alan’s son, also a piper, who played ‘Highland Cathedral’ as a lament at Bishop Ian Harland’s memorial service in 2009 in Carlisle Cathedral.
From old photographs, and even older records, I know that the remains of an extremely large tree stump, shaped like a miniature crater and rising up from the paddock on the south side of the garden, belong to an ancient oak tree. This was the tree that dominated the garden for hundreds of years until the 1950s. It is the tree that the bishop took off his hat to every day on his morning walk, according to an archived account that I read several years ago. But at the time of reading, I didn’t make a record of the source of my information or the name of the bishop who held the oak tree in such high regard. In spring, a garland of meadow grasses grows around the tree’s remains, and at this time of year, the stump disappears from view behind the vegetable garden’s autumnal curtain of sunflower seed heads and bedraggled tallness.
Cutting the grass to a lower level in the orchard in October is a job that defines the end of summer, but there are some areas where, on purpose, the grass has been left uncut for two years or more. I look out from the garden across the surrounding expanses of fields that become increasingly bereft of trees, hedgerows and wild flowers as each decade passes, and it seems more important than ever to retain as many natural habitats for wildlife as possible within garden settings. A more wilderness style of gardening often beckons, and native species are more and more at the forefront of my mind when thinking ahead to next year’s garden.
Queen’s counsel for October
Yew trees are botanically classified as conifers, and therefore their berries are technically female cones, each with a single seed surrounded by red flesh. The seed coats of yew are toxic, but thrushes disperse intact seeds in their droppings or by regurgitation.
Marrows and courgettes belong to the same species, and while some varieties of unharvested courgette fruits will soon reach reasonable marrow size, other varieties, such as ‘Tiger Cross’, have been bred specifically to produce large, spectacular marrows.
Although some tree stumps may have to be removed from a garden for practical reasons, including problems with fungal disease or suckering, it is worth considering leaving other stumps to decay naturally to provide habitats for wildlife and fungi.
So easy to grow and a favourite with children, sunflowers are now setting seed. As autumn progresses, the heads of the tallest varieties begin to bend and, depending on the weather, seeds will ripen and prove irresistible to many songbirds.
Flowering until the first frosts, Cleome spinosa provides reliable colour for autumn gardens. Spidery flowers, in shades of pink, purple and white, are borne on 90 – 100cm stems. The stems, however, become clad in vicious spines by the end of summer.