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Helen Chesnut: Autumn's arrival a comfort after worrying weather

Instead of the usual complaints, all I’m hearing is relief at the arrival of early autumn rains

Instead of the usual complaints, all I’m hearing is relief at the arrival of early autumn rains along with a gradual but sure cooling of temperatures. Most of us are remembering the warm, dry October last year, a winter bereft of the usual amount of rainfall, and the early May heat wave ushering in drought through the summer.

At least for now, we are back to a more “normal” West Coast autumn, with a not unpleasant mix of cloudy and rainy days interrupted by random hours of sunshine.

Following a lengthy period of worrying weather, the feeling of seasonal normalcy returning is a comfort.

Routine. There is comfort in routine too. As temperatures gradually cool in early autumn, gardening agendas fill with timely tasks.

My four vegetable plots are cleared of spent plantings, leaving the carrots, beets, potatoes, kale, lettuce, endive and radicchio in place. These food plants, protected as needed with layers of old floating row cover (or old bed sheets, curtaining, burlap), will constitute an outdoor fall and winter “pantry” of home-grown food to harvest as needed.

Plant debris gathered in the plot cleanup has been finely chopped and placed, along with leaves, on areas of soil left bare from the clearing as protection against erosion over the winter.

On a sunny day early in the month my friend Caron came to help with another routine early autumn task: harvesting lavender while trimming a curved edging of large, Provence bushes.

I know. For the best dried lavender the preferred harvesting time is early in the flowering period. I have reasons for the far-later timing.

Unlike all the other lavenders in the garden, these large Provence plants produce flowers that retain the depth of their sweet scent through the summer. And I enjoy the rush of perfume that is released each time I pass by along the pathway where they form an edging.

Probably most important, bees in significant numbers are busy in the plants all summer. These important insects need all the support our gardens can offer.

Autumn beauty. As Caron clipped the stems from the Provence plants, she paused to admire and ask about a tall, gracefully arched shrub located at the end of the lavender row.

I identified the plant as Himalayan honeysuckle (Leycesteria formosa, pheasant berry). Its elongated heart-shaped, pointed leaves had begun to take on rosy autumn tints along the foliage edges, and drooping clusters of shiny maroon berries hung from the stems. I treasure this shrub as an easy-care plant that is highly decorative from spring to late in the autumn.

Autumn seemed to arrive almost overnight this year. I was startled one late September morning by a flash of scarlet and white as I glanced out my upstairs bedroom window. The foliage on a tall Oxydendrum (sorrel tree) had already taken on its fiery fall colouring, punctuated by curved fingers of white flowers.

It’s been a pleasure to point out such beautiful autumn highlights to visitors in the garden. I always make a point also to show off the three enormous Long Naples and another three large, curved Pennsylvania Dutch Crookneck winter squashes, all about to be harvested, cured and stored for winter feasting.


Russell Nursery workshops. Russell Nursery, 1370 Wain Rd. in North Saanich, is offering the following courses. Register by email ( or phone (250-656-0384). Specify the workshop and the time you wish to attend. Include your phone number.

• Fall tree and shrub pruning with Noah Alexander, certified arborist with the Municipality of Esquimalt. The workshop will be part theory and part outdoor demonstration. Dress for the weather. Saturday, Oct. 21, at either 10 a.m. or 12:30 p.m. Cost $35.

• Secateur sharpening with Brian Russell. Learn how to clean and sharpen hand pruners. Saturday, Oct. 28, at 10 a.m. or 1 p.m. Bring one pair of secateurs, preferably ones that can be taken apart, like Felcos. Cost $35.

•Wreath making. With help from nursery staff, create a festive wreath with fresh greens, berries, and other decorative items. All supplies are provided, These workshops are already filling. To see the times of the 19 wreath making workshops (Nov. 18 to Dec. 10) visit Dress warmly. Bring gloves, secateurs and a mug for hot apple cider. Cost $65 plus GST.