As the days shorten, Devon empties of tourists, and the first winter swells arrive off the Atlantic, I am always reminded of Keats’ poem To Autumn, and its homage to a calm and reliable harvest: ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’.
We do have autumn mists already, but our fruitfulness is more anxious than mellow. This year, for the first time, I am not soothed by Keats’ words. His certainty and complacency feel out of reach in a world rocked by the discord of Covid, Brexit, and climate catastrophe – and, closer to home, a farming year that refuses to settle into any seasonal rhythm.
I am watching our squash and pumpkin crops with increasing nervousness. The plants are loaded with fruit, but they are several weeks from maturity. We would normally be harvesting the earlier varieties by now, but the vines are still green, and the skins soft.
Frosts late in May meant that some plants had to be resown, and a cool summer has further delayed maturity. There will come a point in October when we will have to bring the fruits into the barn and heat them to set (toughen) the skins and sweeten the flesh. While we wait, the local rabbits are busy nibbling away.
Leeks, cabbages, cauliflower, purple sprouting broccoli, and kales are all looking good, if also a little behind. As with the squash, we pray for no early frosts and a slow decline into winter. We are grateful for Devon’s ‘open back-end’ to the growing season; by virtue of our mild maritime climate, growth can carry on for a month longer than in the east of the country.
With the soil warm and active right up until Christmas, organic matter is broken down quickly, and nutrients continue to be released to our crops, allowing them to make the most of what light there is. If we dodge frost in early October, there is still plenty of time for these winter crops to catch up to where they should be.
As a very urban Londoner friend said during a visit one November, as I proudly showed them my crops: “It’s just so f***ing green!” Plants refuse to give up, and keep on chugging into winter. We may yet be mellow and fruitful this autumn, and I may grow a little complacent. Or is that a feeling from a bygone age?