Dark and light of equal lengths

Day and night are almost equal at the equinox.
Day and night are almost equal at the equinox.

Written by Heather Elvidge

Fruit trees have made good growth this year and apples are looking particularly fine, despite a few problems with mildew. As the equinox draws near growers remember the old prayer, “September blow soft, till the fruit’s in the loft”.

Strong winds are dreaded because they can strip fruit from the trees before it’s ready. So far, so good; but folklore says that St Matthew on the 21st brings a three-day spell of windy weather, ushering in the cold and wet.

That period leads up to the autumn equinox during the early hours of September 23. At this halfway point between midsummer and midwinter, darkness and light are of roughly equal length.

Centuries of seafarers thought that the autumn equinox brought gales, a belief that can be traced back to Roman times. Meteorologists say no, it’s the remnants of Atlantic hurricanes that drive the month’s storms.

However, the equinox is linked to high tides. The full or new moon closest to the equinox produces the highest tides of the year, that’s why there are big bores on the Severn in September as high tides are funnelled up the estuary and into the river. The new moon falls on September 24.

It looks as though this could be a record year for wheat. After poor yields in the last two years, farmers are quietly happy. But this silver lining has a cloud — a high yield means prices are much lower than expected.

Once the arable harvest is over, the bales of straw don’t linger long. And when they’re brought in, the field is quickly ploughed to turn the stubble into the soil. Today’s farmers are keen to get seed sown for the next crop.

In the days when arable crops were cut by men with scythes and bound into sheaves by hand, the harvested fields were left for the gleaners to come in. Gleaners were poor women and their children who collected the short stalks and broken ears left behind by the reapers and binders. Only those in need were allowed to join in, and then only for a set time so everyone had a fair chance. The gleaners wore an “earbag” tied around the waist, or simply a doubled-up apron, to hold the golden treasure.

Gleaning was an unwritten law in almost every parish from medieval times to the mid-nineteenth century. Although it was hard work for the women, the free grain they collected helped to feed their families.

Fluttering by

In spite of much fine weather this summer butterflies haven’t fared as well as we thought. Following a promising June and July, some species suffered during that miserable cold spell in August.

Yet, in the middle of the day, when the sun is at its warmest, it’s still possible to spot butterflies feeding from autumn-flowering plants. Sedum, aster, ivy, michaelmas daisy, and thistle are all good sources of nectar.

Peacocks and small tortoiseshells overwinter as adults, so they’re feeding up before the time comes to hibernate. Peacock numbers are down this year, but after years of decline small tortoiseshells have rallied. Look out for red admirals — they’re partial to over-ripe fruit such as windfall plums and pears.