Leopards, Toads and Scarlet Elf Cups

13 October 2019

I have to admit that October is my favourite month of the year . . .

The colour shades of autumn 

Once passed the Autumn equinox the encroaching winter darkness begins to make its mark. There are special sunny, warm days when the sky is absolutely crystal clear and blue with an intensity that glows. All around the trees are beginning to change colour and slowly and silently, leaves begin to drift down to the ground where they form myriad patterns amongst the grass and mosses resembling the most elegantly crafted Persian carpets. The lawn is bejewelled with beads of sparkling dew and often a wispy layer of morning fog floats mysteriously between the earth and sky like some sort of relic from prehistoric times. I think of how many people have stood in awe on days like this over the many centuries, marvelling at the clarity the low sun brings to shape and shadow only to be jolted out of my imagining by the sharp, excited calls of migrating geese as they fly in formation towards the estuary which will be their winter home.  

Fungi friend or foe? 

Autumn is the time of year when groups of mushrooms and toadstools seem to pop up overnight in various shapes and sizes. The fruiting bodies range in colour from bright red through to shining white and vibrant yellow. They have brilliant names like the ‘Penny Bun’, the ‘Scarlet Elf Cup’, ‘Honey Fungus’ and the ‘Candle-snuff Fungus’.  Some are edible and some are deadly poisonous so best to leave them well alone unless you are an expert forager. Fungi are present in the soil all year round, but they cannot manufacture their food and have to live off dead matter helping to break down dead trees, leaves and twigs into rich nutrients which can be recycled by other plants and organisms. 

Photo from this link.

Useful fungus 

When we plant roses it’s common to sprinkle a powder containing’ mycorrhizal fungi’ at the roots. This mixture of powdered fungus helps the shrub to create healthy roots and obtain a better supply of minerals and vitamins, so it grows stronger.  It’s not just plants that need fungus to survive, we use different types to help us make bread, wine, beer, cheese, statins and other drugs. The next time you come across a group of toadstools or other fruiting bodies, just remember that there are somewhere between 2.2 and 3.5 million species of fungus in the world and there is every chance this one could be an unknown variety.  

Leopard slug 

So far this has been a wet month and it remains to be seen if the second half of October will dry out and bring us the rich autumn colours and deep piles of dry leaves to kick through as we walk about. It is a time when animals and insects are searching for quiet corners of the garden where they will be able to hibernate and survive the coming winter. 

When tidying some corrugated iron sheeting today, we uncovered a massive ‘leopard slug’ resting on the warm, moist soil. Limax maximus, literally means ‘biggest slug’ and this one was a beauty. It was about 6 inches long and covered in conspicuous black blots along its mostly pinkish/brown body. 

Image from this link:

Fertilising slug 

Like most slugs, the leopard slug is a ‘detrivore’. It obtains nutrients by consuming detritus – decomposing plant and animal matter – and like a mushroom, it contributes to decomposition helping to fertilise the soil, but importantly, it also eats other slugs. It is known as the gardener’s friend so in the spirit of friendship, I moved it to a safe place in amongst some stacked roof tiles. You can read more about the fascinating lifecycle of the Leopard Slug here.

More berries, a hard winter? 

This seems to be a particularly good year for berries. The weather folklore says that

“When berries be many in October, beware a hard winter” and Holly, in particular, is supposed to be a reliable indicator of encroaching winter weather. Let’s not get too worried yet but believe me when I say that this is an exceptionally good year for Holly Berries. It’s also a good year for Rowan and Hawthorn. Looking back in my diary however, I can see that it was sunny when these trees and shrubs were flowering and I’m sure that must have the most influence on the amount of berries available.  

Time to put our feet up! 

We have been on very light duties in the garden recently as a film crew was busy working in the house and grounds at Bannockburn House. They wanted the gardens to lose their neatness and look as if they had lain untended for many years. To achieve this effect, they brought in large branches of broom, gorse, ivy and thistles to drape around the house and across our lawns to create the derelict effect – then they asked us not to cut the grass for the last 5 weeks! 

Image from this link.

My amphibian friends 

Whilst we were unsure about this ‘designer’ look, voles, rabbits, wrens and our resident Buzzards thought this was a tremendous improvement to the local environment and very quickly began to investigate the newly created landscape. The greenery was only in place for about two weeks but that was long enough for the animals to move in and set up house.  I felt slightly guilty when the time came to clear away the false bushes and evict the wildlife from their holiday homes, but it was brilliant to discover a small brownish-green toad snuggled in under some logs we were moving. 

He was motionless for a few seconds before starting to wriggle his legs out from underneath and begin the search for a new safe hiding place. Needless to say, he got a helping hand over to the edge of the old log pile and hopefully, he has been able to find a new cosy niche for his winter home. 

So, having found a frog in the potato patch last month, and now Mr Toad, I just need to find some newts and we will have all three native amphibians living on the grounds. Watch this space!

Blog by Margaret in the Gardening Team at Bannockburn House