It's "La Rentrée" - the start of the academic year in France and, in many ways the start of the gardening year too. I love getting back into the garden after the summer holidays and the heat of July and August.
The garden has a chaotic beauty to it at this time of year - seed-heads and frowzy fronds of dying perennial foliage, grasses which are really coming into their own and the beginning of autumn colours creeping into trees and shrubs. All of this is caught in the low sunlight of September, giving everything a golden glow on summer evenings. But enough of the poetic verse - it is also time to start afresh - this month I will be cutting back or removing some spent plants (saving those with good structure or ornamental seed heads for the birds and for their beauty), ordering bulbs to plant for next spring, sowing the seeds collected in late summer, dividing or moving plants which are in the wrong place - or buying their replacements. I also start to plan for the arrival of bare rooted trees and shrubs, which will be planted in the colder months. Then, of course, I need to plan my autumn hedge cutting schedule. And this is all before you get around to the fruit and vegetable garden, where there is still a lot going on.
Stipa Gigantea catching the autumn light - it looks good throughout the winter months
There is a lot to think about - so here, in more detail, are one or two things to be getting on with now.
Rejuvenate beds and borders.
Now is the best time of year to rejuvenate borders in the ornamental garden. By this I mean remove, divide or replant plants which are either past their best or are unhappy where they are. It is also when I plant out into the garden the seedlings and cuttings I have grown on over the past 12 months.
In France I always try to do all of this this before the clocks go back for winter in late October. The soil is still warm enough for the roots to establish. Plants also have the wetter weather of winter to settle in before next year's growing period. I find if I plant new plants (and water them in well) in the autumn they are much less likely to succumb to drought the following year. Plant something in the spring and you have to nurse it very carefully for the rest of its first year in your garden.
As you do all of this this you have the chance to clear the ground of established perennial weeds and maybe plant some bulbs at the same time. Once the soil is clean, the bulbs are tucked up in it and your new plants are in place then you are ready to begin the process of mulching the ground - a job for the colder months of November and December.
Order bulbs before it is too late.
The most popular varieties sell out quickly, so even if you are not going to plant them immediately it is a good idea to get them now. Store them in a cool, dry, mouse proof place until they are ready to plant. Crocus, daffodil and muscari bulbs can go into the ground in September, followed by fritillarias, alliums and, in November, tulips. My go-to suppliers are Farmer Gracie (https://www.farmergracy.co.uk/) and Peter Nyssen (https://www.peternyssen.com/fr) both of whom can send bulbs to France.
The big cut back.
In September/October we cut the evergreen hedges, shape one or two of the larger evergreen shrubs and attempt to control our Italian cypress trees. We inherited the cypress trees and, unfortunately, they are not a variety called"Totem". Should you ever plant an Italian cypress, those beautiful, pencil shaped accent trees so evocative of Italy, then try to get Totem - it remains reliably slender. Ours bush out and become very untidy after strong winds. They need to be trimmed regularly. We avoid trimming hedges and shrubs before the end of August because of the risk of disturbing birds nests - believe it or not, we still had pigeons nesting and laying eggs in out walnut trees until August this year.
In the vegetable and fruit garden we are still harvesting like mad.
The last of the tomatoes are coming in now and we pick chillies, pumpkins, blackberries, autumn fruiting raspberries, salads, beans, beetroot, aubergines, courgettes and basil. Salad leaves can still be sown and the chard we sowed a couple of months ago is almost ready to harvest. The cavolo nero, which we sowed at the same time as the chard, is not so well developed, but that is best left to mature until after the first frosts. In early September we still have figs on the fig tree immediately outside the house and in hot weather we are plagued by hornets which try to get into the house as soon as we put the lights on in the evenings. They are European hornets, so they have as much right to be here as we do, but boy, are they big!
When we cut back beans and peas we leave the roots in the ground as they are invaluable as a source of naturally occurring nitrogen. This develops in little nodules which you can see on the roots if you dig a plant up. Chop those roots up and bury them in the ground - nitrogen is invaluable for the development of leaves, so make a note to plant leafy vegetables such as spinach, lettuce or chard where you last had beans.
Needless to say, if I pull out a gone-to-seed head of lettuce our hens love it - they leap on fresh green leaves as though they were manna from heaven - and they also love squishy tomatoes and fruit which is past its best. The hens are still laying and we watch and wait to see who starts to moult and stop laying eggs first. I always try to get my Christmas cake made and iced before our girls take their winter break.
We dry walnuts on old prune trays before storing them - they last for at least a year if thoroughly dried.
The walnuts start to fall now and we have a race to get them before the wild boar come into the garden and ransack the place (note to self - construct a fence around the entire boundary) and this year we seem to have more quince and pumpkins than we know what to do with.
I love autumn and look forward to September, October and November even though they herald the cold short days of winter.