It seems strange talking about autumn right now, as we have just come out of the warmest September since 1911, and here on the Island it still feels like summer. Still, astronomical autumn began on the 22nd of September so here we are!
On the surface, it seems like everything is slowing down. It’s the time of year when things start to look a little faded, summer plants are finishing and others are retreating back into the soil to build up reserves for next spring.
Right now as I’m writing this I can see the trees in our woodland are reacting to shorter daylight hours, starting to prepare for the coming winter. They know that soon the reduced amount of light will cause photosynthesis to slow down, so they start to shut down the supply of chlorophyll to their leaves. As the green colour of the chlorophyll disappears, the underlying colours of red, yellow and gold show through.
Shortly, leaves will also begin to fall. Nature loves to conserve energy, and for a tree to spend resources on leaves in the winter makes no sense. Trees will also lose more water through their leaves in the winter than they can get back – so letting leaves drop will help them to conserve both water and energy.
Nature also loves to recycle, so the falling leaves aren’t wasted – they will be broken down on the woodland floor by bacteria and fungi to release the hard-to-get-at nutrients which feed the soil. The layer of leaves also helps water retention and adds structure to the soil as worms, centipedes and countless other minibeasts work their way through it, and in turn, these creatures become precious winter food for birds.
Red squirrels are also very active at this time of year as their favourite foods are in abundance – we have a large number of hazel trees producing copious amounts of hazelnuts, and the squirrels have been eating their fill as well as burying others in preparation for the winter.
When the woodland is fully dormant, it will be time to plant some more bare-rooted trees and move some self-seeded ash saplings that have appeared in our garden area. For me, and for the woodland, autumn is as much about renewal as springtime.