IN THIS mild November, trees have been reluctant to let go of their leaves.
But most of them are bare now and even the oak leaves, which are always last, are trickling to the ground.
As garden plants start to die back and a pleasant view morphs into a bit of a shambles, gardeners get the urge to tidy up. Some things have to be done.
Ignore fallen rose leaves affected by black spot, and the disease will over-winter in the soil. Mouldy stems, encouraged by damp days, can damage the crowns of perennials.
But try to leave any seed heads that will provide food for small birds.
Fallen leaves can be left where they are. A layer of leafmold — that’s decomposed leaves, not mouldy ones — makes a brilliant soil conditioner.
Worms will pull leaves down into the soil, further enriching it for next year.
And let’s not forget our friend the hedgehog, who needs those dry leaves to furnish his winter nest. Among the dead leaves and rotting wood will be spiders and insects snuggling down for the winter.
Some of these are the gardener’s friends, but even the pests have their place.
They make tasty morsels for birds, helping them to survive the cold months. So the message is, tidy up a bit, but not too much.
While busy in the garden you might come across a ladybird. Take note of where it is, because it has a message for you.
If winter in your area is going to be mild, the ladybird will be tucked away in a crevice in the bark of a tree, at least three feet off the ground.
If a cold winter is on the way, it will have retreated into a pile of dead leaves on the ground.
Nobody knows how the ladybirds do it, but research has shown that they never make the wrong choice.
It can’t be four weeks to Christmas; it’s not cold enough yet for a mid-winter festival.
But already Santa is in his grotto, Christmas lights are cheering up the late afternoon gloom, and this coming Sunday is the first in Advent.
Advent means coming, the coming of the Holy Child. It’s the start of the church’s year when Christians look forward to the birth of Jesus, while also remembering His second coming.
So the first Sunday in Advent is solemn, with readings about the Lord coming in judgement at the end of time.
Before the Reformation there was real solemnity during Advent, because everyone was expected to fast.
In practice this meant four weeks of stew or fish, which must have been miserable for those who had to work outside in the cold.
Christmas Eve was an even stricter fast with no meat, cheese or eggs. Even the humblest Christmas meal must have felt like a feast after that.
It’s all rather different today. In the weeks leading up to the Big Day there’s relentless pressure to spend.
For parents this amounts to emotional blackmail, and that’s just from the stores, not the kids.
Have you seen that desperate TV ad with singing children dressed as stars? Good mums and dads, it suggests none too subtly, buy expensive gadgets for their kids.
Consumerism has done a thorough job of hijacking Christmas, so let’s make this the year that we claim it back.
We’ll start by purging ourselves of cynicism, because this cuts us off from everything good.
We’ll make someone happy by doing a small act of kindness, without thinking of what they might do for us.
We’ll pay no attention to the Christmas moaners, instead let’s remember what we really enjoy, the things that give us a warm glow.
No, not presents, the basic things like lights, carols, a mince pie, the smell of a pine tree, bunches of holly, getting together with friends or family.
There’s no need to feel guilty about having to cut back this year, because millions of people are doing the same. Christmas will not be ruined.
Without the stress of overspending and overeating, we’ll rediscover the true joys of the season.