Aromatic Autumn

Cutting back perennials and shrubs in autumn is always a dilemma here, as for many of you I’m sure…. Should I wait until a frost catches me unawares and many plants simply collapse? Should I leave it all standing for the damp autumn valley mists to turn it all to a gooey slimey mess? Or should I cut back everything before it is really over, and forfeit a few blooms? After all, the debris all remains in the garden either chopped up as mulch or on our large compost heap.

I usually opt for the latter option as it is quicker and easier as well as more pleasant to work when it is dry and when I have time, rather than wait until the weather turns really awful and the late afternoon daylight has vanished. So over the last week or so I have started trimming and snipping. There was brief interlude one day when I disturbed an exposed hedgehog nest – what was he thinking – half buried in the open rockery, albeit well wrapped up in a net of long grasses and leaves? We removed him carefully (luckily he seemed to be fast asleep already) and found a sheltered spot in the compost heap with some fresh hay. Then I returned to work and found myself taking pleasure in all the autumn scents around me.

The earthy sage-like scent of the now ghostly-white Perovskia is probably the most pungent, coupled with the sharp cat-like smell of Herb Robert. Snip, snip…


The Lysimachia is still emitting its bitter odour, but the Achillea’s distinctive scent has all but gone. Then there is the faded lavender, mmmmm, breathe in those deep herby undertones!  Snip, snip….


I brush past the Balkan Geranium G. macrorrhizum, which has retained its strong but not unpleasant spicy fragrance – you either love it or hate it I think. And then I move across the rockery, disturbing something fruity – now what can that be? Ah yes, mint! The mintiness has faded, but the sweet ripe fruitiness is still fresh and enticing. I must pull some up anyway and can then use it in the kitchen. And I think to myself  ‘there are still some scents that do not indicate decay’. Snip, snip, snip…


I look up – a floral fragrance hangs in the air – almost impossible to detect, but could it be the roses? Snip, snip…


Then the smell of woodsmoke wafts across the garden reminding me it will soon be Halloween and Guy Fawke’s Night.  I spread some compost onto an area with a few new plants and catch a whiff of that musty earthy smell – rich soil that was not so long ago green stems and vegetable matter.

Finally I mow the small lawn near the house – it barely smells of anything, no longer producing that  rush of pleasure I feel at the scent of it in April or May.


All these smells will soon be gone completely, so I am so very glad I opted for doing the autumn trimming before the frost and damp take over. Snip, snip, snip…

Do you try and get the chores done before it freezes? What’s your favourite scent of autumn?

43 thoughts on “Aromatic Autumn

  1. I like the earthy, mushroom like scent in autumn. It really marks the season for me and yes, we are not far from Halloween and the 5th of November. Then, ding ding, Christmas is coming. Different aromas to look forward to.

  2. You are so disciplined and probaly right to get on which with cutting back the foliage while it is still dry.
    My favourite smell – peat smoke from the crofts on a late afternoon, telling me it is time to go home and light the fire.

  3. I am usually almost done before the first freeze but not this year…I am barely started at the end of October and will get little done this year. I leave up lots for the birds and let the beds be covered in leaves and debris for overwintering insects. I love the smell of the decaying leaves in fall.

    • There have been years where I just haven’t had the time to get tidied up and then we have been surprised by early snow. It’s just messier in the spring though, and doesn’t do any harm!

  4. The smell of the plants in the garden is so important to me too. At the moment I love the smell of saffron when I am picking it and the Osmanthus heterophyllus is full of perfumed flowers. We are warm and have sunshine at the moment but I should really be doing the same as you to keep ahead of the game. Amelia

    • That is it Amelia…. at the moment it is lovely outdoors, but in a week it could be much colder and damp, which I hate when working outside. Hope your warm spell continues!

  5. I could almost smell those scents along with you, Cathy. What a lovely piece of writing. I like the damp smell of autumn in general, that early decay of falling leaves and the moisture that (finally) arrives on the air. Like you, I tend to jump in and prune away, sometimes leaving one or two blooms on the plant, but mostly taking things back to the ground for a hard prune, or to buds for next year as I do with the hydrangeas. We rarely get frost here, so for us it’s more a question of beating the rains which have been few and far between in recent years. I’m excited to see what the El Nino brings and hope its moderate, steady rain and not an all at once downpour.

  6. I love the comforting smell of Autumn too and the photograph of the small lawn near your house, thats an area I have not seen before. Loved the anecdote too about your hibernating Hedgehog, I hope you are rewarded with more Hedgehog babies in the spring.

    • Last year we had lots of hedgehog babies in the autumn, but no idea how many survived. I just hope this little fellow isn’t too disoriented when he wakes up! LOL!

  7. What a variety of scents while walking and working in your garden. As always, I like variety. Scents are important for me, bitter and sweet, if they come from natural sources. 🙂
    Enjoy October!

    • And you too Uta! Only a few October days left now. I love the smells of outdoors too – not just the sweet floral smells, but the bitter earthy ones as well.

  8. Your autumn garden is lovely. I enjoyed your descriptions of scent as you worked along. I don’t cut things back until they are really gone, usually Nov. or even early Dec. But I do have to get to the pond soon to drain it, return any frogs to the river bed and cover it for winter. Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny, a good day for it.

    • I hope you had that sunshine yesterday and got your pond drained for winter. Our weather could stay fine till December too, but I have been caught out often enough, so like to get ahead if I can. 😉

  9. Wood smoke, especially if apple wood is on the wood burner. I imagine it could be a little dangerous to work along side you at this time of year with all that snip snipping!

    • Oh yes, and I love the smell of pine too, when brought into the house. I haven’t finished all my snipping yet Brian, so keep clear – I take after my Dad who also loves to do a bit of pruning! (Mostly a bit too much for my Mum’s liking! ) 😉

  10. It all still looks very green and fresh to me, Cathy! I love your description of the smells 🙂 Many of the plant smells you describe I have in my own garden, but I have a different autumn dilemma, namely, not knowing what to expect the plants to do in our mild winters! Surely some of them go dormant and need snipping? I have a lot to learn…

    • I found I learned a lot when I started gardening here by simply looking over neighbour’s fences and hedges! Although you could not say the Bavarians are keen gardeners, except for the veg plot perhaps. 😉

  11. I enjoyed reading this post Cathy. I’m not sure what the smell is that me thinks that autumn is definitely here. I’ve not not smelt it yet this year but no doubt will do before long.

    • I have always associated certain smells with autumn, although woodsmoke seems to be in the air for most of the year in our region. I hope you get a whiff of something nice and autumny soon Anna!

    • I am always worried the snow will beat me to it and flatten everything to a mushy mess! I shall try and tie up my Miscanthus and protect by box shrubs this year, but a lot needs pruning back still. Yes, I like to use the mint for tea as well.

  12. this is such a nice post Cathy, evoking scents and scenes of past times in the garden. I’ve let my cleanup go this year–still time for me to wake up and become conscientious though!

  13. One of the things I most love about Autumn is the smell in the air, a mix of woodsmoke and gently decaying leaves I think, together with that slight snap that says winter is coming. When to tidy up is always an issue, isn’t it. I have resigned myself to it being unlikely that I have any hoar frosts to enjoy on standing plant seedheads, but I still only trim back the things that just always look ugly and mushy. Mind you, I have bulbs to plant yet, and some new plants to get in the ground while it is still warm!

  14. Love that long border of yours! As for snipping I think the regime depends on where you live. In my last garden early snow made a mess of it all sadly so I had to cut back quite a lot. Here though in France I get away with leaving everything until early spring/late winter and it looks so pretty that I almost develop a love for winter…almost that is 😉

    • Yes, when I manage to get everything done by early November we don’t get snow, but guaranteed I’m behind schedule and I get caught out…. 😉 And then it’s difficult to get in the rockery as it is very slippery and hazardous!

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