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Backwords: Autumnal Adventures

"You only get out what you put in,'' was the motto of Mike Shaw's father. And autumn was the time to put something into the garden to feed those prize-winning flowers and vegetables.

Autumn’s falling leaves meant more than the onset of long, dark evenings at our house when I was a lad.

As the mighty oaks, beech and sycamores spread a golden and bronze carpet among the woodlands, father’s gardening instincts sprang to life.

And I became his willing assistant in an annual ritual designed to bring forth prize-winning flowers and veg during the following summer.

After waiting for a fine moonlit evening, dad picked up a large folded tarpaulin from the greenhouse and the pair of us sallied forth.

Across the fields we tramped to the wooded spot where, as if by magic, the leaves lay thicker than anywhere else.

There, the tarpaulin was laid down with all the care a housewife gives to her rich Persian rug.

And the two of us began the task of scooping up large armfuls of leaves to throw onto the waiting tarpaulin.

When the operation was completed, dad gathered up the four corners of the sheet and slung it over his shoulder.

And back home we trooped, looking for all the world like a master burglar and his young sidekick.

So the latter-day Fagin and Dodger trudged urgently through the night with their swag, worthless in cash terms but invaluable as garden compost.

Sometimes two or three journeys were made before the hole - dug and prepared a week or two beforehand in the vegetable patch - was filled to dad’s liking.

The secrecy surrounding the carefully planned operation puzzles me to this day.

But, whatever the reason, its cloak-and-dagger element made a chore into an adventure for an impressionable young schoolboy.

Dad was on the prowl again in another autumn hunt for underground fodder on which to raise his precious plants.

No wonder he gave me so much encouragement to have our own bonfire on Guy Fawkes’ Night.

He even helped us to drag home some of the monster tree branches which two or three juvenile chumpers were incapable of salvaging.

On the big night itself he always played a passive role, apart from making sure the bonfire was well and truly alight.

But next morning he was out at first light with his shovel and sack to claim the invaluable charcoal remains to spread on the spot where he planned to produce prize crops.

Anyone would be forgiven for thinking that all this food was more than enough to rear potatoes, onions, carrots and cabbages of supreme quality and huge dimensions.

But dad happened to be a perfectionist who left nothing to chance. So there was also the inevitable load of straw and manure from a neighbourly farmer to be submerged on some carefully marked plot.

And he also made sure there was a bit of horse manure left over to fill a couple of sacks, which were then lowered into the water butts to yield an enriched mixture come next summer.

Was it all worth it, you may ask. Well dad certainly thought so.

“You only get out what you put in,’’ was his motto in the garden as well as in the university of life.

Come next August, it began to dawn on me how right he was as we relished our home-grown vegetables and salad.

And all his hard work and planning was crowned when he came home on a summer Saturday with a handful of prizes from Marsden Show.

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