Autumn is upon us in all its gleaming conker and whirling leaved glory. Despite the wonders of the season and the promise of winter fun ahead, most of us have the odd little pang about the end of summer as we put away the barbecue. If you’re one of those people prone to winter blues, don’t despair. The air may have a chill in it but out in the parks, fields and lanes already the trees and plants are preparing for next spring. On a woodland wander last week in Pembrokeshire we found all sorts of buds and shoots on the plants and trees that will burst out again once the spring sunshine returns – a happy reminder that winter does not last forever.
If you’re feeling a little gloomy about the end of the summer then here are some fun things to do with the family in the coming weeks to introduce a little autumnal optimism. If you have any favourite activities then I’d love to hear them too – feel free to leave a comment!
In the meantime, get out and enjoy that gorgeous sunshine. The chilly mornings and autumn mists may be upon us but the sun is not quite ready to give up on us all just yet it seems.
- Take a ‘Signs of Spring’ nature walk. On your next trip out to the park, past that unkempt hedgerow or a wander in the countryside, take a close look at the plants and trees that you pass. Watch out for tiny new catkins forming on trees like the Hazel, Alder, Hornbeam and Willow. After you’ve collected the conkers underneath, take a peep at the end of the newest branches of the Horse Chestnut tree and search for the sticky leaf buds that will spring out into next year’s foliage and flowers. On the end of most trees and plants tiny dark buds have formed, ready to make new growth in the spring and as the brambles offer up the last of their blackberries, take a look at all those wild, young green spiky tendrils they have sent shooting out. They may be bare this year but next year those are the branches that will be providing the goods for your blackberry crumbles!
- Plant spring bulbs: Even if all you have space for is one little pot by the front door, planting a few spring bulbs has to be one of the best autumnal activities. I love walking past those bare patches of soil where I have buried a few bulbs, knowing that every time I pass them is one journey less until they leap up from the cold winter soil and bring some welcome colour back into our outdoor lives. If you’ve got some lawn or a spare bit of ground then consider planting naturalising bulbs of snowdrops, narcissi and crocus underneath for an easy, ever-expanding spread of colour and scent in the springtime that is wildlife friendly. You can even stick in some autumnal naturalising cyclamen for instant colour whilst you’re at it! The RHS has an excellent page with suggestions of good bulbs for naturalising – call ahead to your local garden centre or search for them online if you’re after something specific to save you time. Choosing and planting bulbs is a great activity for kids to help out with too and something they will love watching appear in the spring – just make sure they wear gloves and wash their hands and keep a close eye on toddlers – most bulbs are irritants and can be poisonous if eaten.
- Invest in a hyacinth jar: If the kids are curious as to what is going on out under the soil once they have buried those bulbs then bring the bulbs indoors! Pick up a glass hyacinth jar (the ones with the round tops, squeezed in middle and wide square bottoms) and a hyacinth bulb (look out for indoor varieties for best results), balance bulb on top of the jar with the water filled up to the neck and sit back and wait. Watching as the roots begin to grown and the leaves sprout up is a great study for kids and will help them understand the hidden magic going on outside. It also serves a lovely reminder that despite appearances outside, things are already in progress for the spring. Finally, it’s a brilliant way of bringing some early colour and scent indoors when all outside is looking bleak. If you progressively plant some indoor bulbs over the coming weeks you will have plenty of winter and Christmas colour.
- Build a Pond: The autumn and winter are great times to set-up a pond in your garden. It needn’t be big – you can even use a sunken frost-proof bowl or bucket if you like – you just need to make sure that there is easy access in and out of it for wildlife and that if it has very straight sides that you use plenty of rocks or other material to make sure wildlife can get out easily. The Wildlife Trust have great tips for pond building here. Whilst it is unlikely that much will happen in your pond over the winter it will give the kids a great reason for popping outdoors to keep an eye out for any new plant and animal arrivals. Come early spring you will also have a ready made nursery for frogspawn, so don’t forget to pop out some logs or plant cover next to it to provide shelter for frogs.
- Plant for Nature: If like me you enjoy a trip to the local garden centre then autumn is the perfect excuse. Instead of buying instant colour for this season, invest in some plants that will flower in late winter and early spring. The RHS Perfect for Pollinators list is a great place to get some seasonal inspiration. That way you will be providing vital food for pollinators at a time when there is very little else around for them. Whilst most pollinators are dormant over winter, warm winter days or even just being in a city in the South of the UK can be enough to make bees and other pollinating beasties active. Another advantage of having some winter flowers planted up is that you will be in a position to spot the very first signs of spring – when those insects start heading for the flowers you know that the natural world is waking up and that it won’t be long until everything is green again.
- Plant a tree: Go on a seed hunt with the kids and collect up acorns, conkers and whatever else you can find. Stick them in a pot with some soil (or in a jam jar with some water to get started) and bring them in somewhere warm to fool them into thinking spring is here already. The kids will love watching and caring for their mini trees over the winter months and they can be planted out again in the spring.
- Brighten up inside: Now is the time to get out collecting natural bits and bobs to brighten up the house over Christmas. Pine cones look beautiful sprayed with glitter glue or gold paint or just arranged in decorations and there are lots of beautiful seed heads that look fantastic in Christmas decorations too. Just remember to leave plenty for wildlife!
- Put up a bird box: Nothing says spring like the sudden frenzy of the birds as they set about finding a mate and a nesting site to lay their eggs in. Bring this brilliant sign of spring into your garden by putting up some nest boxed now. This will give the birds time to get used to them and also provide shelter for some birds over the cooler months. Don’t forget to feed the birds in the garden over the winter too. Not only will you be giving nature a helping hand but you’ll also be increasing the interest in your bird real estate for next year!