With the leaves falling and nights growing shorter, autumn is well underway and October is the month that best encapsulates this season. In the wider countryside, stags are rutting and birds are migrating. But closer to home, you’ll notice lots of seasonal changes. Whether it's the leaves changing to warm yellow and red tones or the damp conditions drawing out all the mushrooms in those dark corners of the garden - it's a great time to find detail with your macro lens; leaves, fungi and insects provide plenty of opportunities.
Pile up leaves
I think many of us can be a little bit too tidy in our gardens but I try to embrace the mess (to a degree!)! Once all the leaves have fallen from my bushes and my neighbour’s trees, I pile them up on the compost heap or a corner of the garden and leave them to rot. By spring you’ll also have a nice pile of natural compost to use elsewhere in the garden.
This is a fantastic resource for many creatures in the garden. Worms and woodlice are the dustbin-men of the garden - cleaning the way for the species that we are encouraging, like slow worms, frogs and hedgehogs. Although truth be told, as for the latter, while many of us may put houses, these spikey visitors tend to only use them as stop-offs and prefer the damp surrounding of a big pile of leaves to hide under.
It's worth bearing in mind that if there is any garden waste you want to dispose of and not use elsewhere in the garden e.g. bramble or other unwanted plants, you should put it in your garden waste bin sooner rather than later. Many councils stop taking garden waste in the winter months and you’ll be stuck with it (but this will vary depending on where you live.)
Sow the seeds
Many seeds will start popping up as soon as they’re sown, but quite a few species need a frost or at least colder temperatures to germinate - a process called stratification. Some that belong to this group include the famous yellow rattle - often used by wildlife gardeners to help grow meadows. This species is parasitic to grass - and, at the end of the season, it can be sown to suppress grass growth and in turn, give wildflowers a chance to grow. This has earned the yellow rattle the apt nickname of meadow maker.
Another species is the field scabious - a favourite of many butterflies and one that requires the stratification process to germinate and eventually produce its beautifully subtle purple flowers. And of course, there’s the spring favourite - the daffodil. These require cooler temperatures to spread out. If you have fully formed bulbs, now is the time to plant them, ready for spring! Larger plants also benefit from a cold spell. Apple seeds, for instance, need to be cold to sprout up, as well as mulberry and dog rose.
Trim back bushes and trees
By this time of year, birds will have stopped nesting and hopefully will have successfully fledged the nest. Most of the bushes and trees will also have stopped flowering and either will bear fruit or have started to die off. With that in mind, this is an ideal time to start trimming and cutting back bushes. I try to be fairly conservative and if I’m honest, part of my minimal trimming is that a big bush provides many birds with protection from the elements and predators. That said, in certain cases, it is beneficial to cut bushes back.
My buddleia, for example, is covered in dead flowers and cutting those off not only encourages new growth next year but also stops the seeds from taking over every crack in my garden. It also allows the sun to reach some of the plants behind it which are currently blocked by the bush.
Last year, I cut back my cherry tree (located near my pond) about midway, resulting in a more bush-like tree. This was great for the birds and reduced the risk of it falling and causing any damage to the garden. In some areas, such as around my raised pond, I encourage the growth of native bushes like hawthorn, blackthorn and dog rose to create a messy wild patch for birds.
October is without a doubt the best month for fungi. You may see various species popping up on your lawn, poking out the log pile or peering from the compost heap - either way, they make a great subject to photograph. It's thought that there are around 15,000 species of wild mushrooms in Britain and as such, it can take a lot of time to correctly identify them (although many are fairly distinguishable). Only a handful are deadly but to be safe, always seek professional advice before eating any! Species you’re likely to encounter in the garden include the field mushroom, yellow staining mushroom, fly agaric and shaggy ink cap, to name a few.
Ideal mushroom sprouting conditions are damp and without too much sun. Likewise, they don’t like frost. Wait too long to go on a mushroom hunt, and they may have wilted. And if they haven’t wilted, the gardener’s ever-present antagonist - the slug - may well be chomping on them and ruining your chances of a perfect photo. Although to be fair to the slugs, they serve the very important ecological service of cleaning up the detritus in gardens.
So, if you find a perfectly formed mushroom in your garden then it's best to take the image straight away, as chances are it won’t be like that the next day. They rarely come up alone so don’t worry if you miss your chance - another should be up before long. Macro is my preferred choice but you could try a wide angle to include more of the garden. Try including the details on the roof of the fungi as well as getting low-down shots - you can create an almost Alice and Wonderland feel in your photos.
We’ve talked about hedgehogs a fair few times through the year and it’s safe to say - I like hedgehogs. Come October, these beloved critters start to slow down as get ready to hibernate. They’ll look for a home to hibernate in, so if you don’t already, get a hedgehog house or pile up some leaves (see above!)
Generally, hedgehogs are nocturnal and rarely seen during the day unless something is wrong - in these cases, it’s best to leave them alone (unless in immediate danger). They may come out at night to look for a slug, worm or if you're feeling nice, some food. You can buy special hedgehog food but dry cat food works fine (wet food, milk and meat can upset the tummies - best to avoid that).
When it comes to photos, if you’re lucky enough to regularly see hedgehogs in your garden, they may eventually become used to you and let you approach. For myself, I’ve always used a remote infrared camera trigger to get my photos. I’ll set up the camera with a flash to help expose the shot if the camera is triggered at night.
Most British insects bear the brunt of the colder months as eggs, larvae or cocoons - waiting for the warmer months in the year to come. But the shieldbug braves them as an adult. Usually appearing bright green, when the latter months of the year come about, they change to a brownish colour to match their warm-toned, autumnal surroundings. When they emerge in the spring, they turn green again which helps them find a mate (after which - they die - but not before laying eggs that will continue the cycle).
They are an interesting subject to photograph - their fine details are impressively complex and a treat to look at if you snap a sharp shot. They are often found in bushes and it's best to check the edges of leaves. Fortunately enough, they don’t move very quickly so are one of the easier insects to photograph!
With the ground finally softening after a warm summer, blackbirds will be feasting on worms rising to the surface, not to mention the glut of berries and fruits now available on the bushes and trees. With the broods now away from the nest, the adults are concerned with fattening up for the winter.
Given time and exposure, they can become quite tame! They often visit the edges of my pond for a quick bath and a drink. They tend to stick to the area they are born and providing there’s enough food and habitat, they’ll stay in a relatively small territory throughout their lives. If you have a bird feeding station then this is the best place to set up your camera to photograph these birds - I typically place myself low down on the ground. I’d suggest setting up a tripod and camera, making a brew and just waiting for them to come in.
This month is a time of colours made up of a mixture of fruits, berries and leaves. October certainly encapsulates autumn in a relatively short period and next month is when winter starts to knock on our doors - expect frosts and hardships for our garden wildlife!