Look and learn

The fallen leaves, which carpet the ground provide food and shelter for many animals. Even when a leaf has fallen, it still contains valuable food reserves which can be returned to the soil and absorbed by the roots of plants, so recycling the nourishment.

Teacher Julia Fairfax suggests you get your kids off the sofa and together go out into the garden or take a leisurely walk in the country to see nature’s bounty in all its glory.

It doesn’t matter what age you are to look and learn and you can have great fun on a day out with a family, and especially if you capture the day on film, create a nature table when you get home and write a diary, recording everything you see and find


In autumn when the day length becomes shorter and temperatures fall, a layer of specialised cells begin to form at the base of each deciduous leaf of trees and shrubs. The cells behind this layer become corky and impervious to water, so the normal transportation of materials in and out of the leaf becomes impeded and gradually stops, and this interferes with the formation of the green pigment, chlorphyll. A plant needs chlorophyll so that photosynthesis can take place, this is the method by which plants make organic foods from simple inorganic compounds, using light energy.

Autumn leaves

The four factors necessary for photosynthesis to be activated are sunlight, chlorophyll in living cells, carbon dioxide and water. The process uses oxygen, carbohydrates and water vapour – which are essential for life on earth. Chlorophyll is constantly being used up, and when supplies needed for its renewal run out, the leaves lose their green colour.

When the green colouring disappears, any other colours which may be in the leaves can then be seen

Yellow flavenoids, which may be in the leaves can be seen are pigments found in association with chlorophyll in leaves, shielding the chlorophyll from being destroyed by too much sunlight. When chlorophyll is no longer produced, the yellow colour becomes visible. Trees such as sycamen, birch, horse chestnut and black pollar have predominantly yellow leaves in autumn. The red pigments are anthocyanins, chemical compounds  which give the colours red, blue and violet-purple. These colours are not often previously present in the leaf but begin to form as it declines. Often the leaves which develop the greatest intensity of red are rich in sugars; among them are Viginia creeper, sumachs, scarlet oak and Japanese maples.


You can collect and press the most colourful leaves to display on your nature table along with pinecones, fruits and nuts that you collect on a country walk

It’s a good idea to take a magnifying glass when you go out into the garden or for a walk to look at some of the animals, which help to break down the fallen leaves

Others are not so small and if you turn some leaf litter over you may see them scurrying away from the light. There are woodlice, millipedes, earthworms, slugs and snails; these are followed by their predators, animals such as carniverous beetles, spiders, harvestmen, pseudoscorpions and centipedes.

Higher up the food chain, toads and hedgehogs hunt these creatures among the fallen leaves

Many fungi are poisonous so get to know them before you pick. This Lawyer’s Wig toadstool, which is often referred to as the Shaggy Inkcap is edible when young and fresh.They appear in great abundance during summer and autumn and can be easily found soon after rain

Many species of fungi live in deciduous woodland and, together with bacteria, help to break down dead plant material, making the nutrients it containes available for themselves and other plants.

Weekend project

  • To look at the smaller animals of the leaf litter, collect a few handfuls of leaf litter in a dry bucket.
  • Put some of the litter into a garden sieve and shake the sieve over a large sheet of white paper. Continue doing this until you have used all your leaf litter. The tiny creatures, which live in the litter will fall through the sieve and onto the paper, along with bits of litter.
  • Shine the light of a torch on to the paper and using a small paintbrush turn over the sieved litter. The minute animals that may be there don’t like the light and will run for cover.
  • Use your paintbrush to pick up the animals and put them on a saucer, where you’ll be able to examine them through a magnifying glass; you may fine mites, springtails and other mini beasts.
  • The animals will dry up and die if you leave them in the warmth of the light, so take care not to neglect them. When you have finished, put the leaf litter and animals back into their habitat.

Enjoy the fresh air

Keep in the glove box of your car, the National Garden Scheme’s Visitor Handbook, known as the Yellow Book. It costs £13.99 and is available from bookshops and the ngs website www.org.uk.

When you buy the handbook you are helping the National Garden Scheme raise funds for the nursing, caring and gardening charities they help support

The best time to enjoy an autumn walk or garden is early morning. Some gardens open at dawn so set your alarm!

Many woodland gardens won’t be suitable for pushchairs or wheelchairs – check before you visit.


Wear comfy shoes as you may find yourself walking up steep paths and through wet leaves

Not all gardens and arboretums welcome dogs – check before you travel.

Invest in a a good field guide to help with identification such as – RSPB Pocket Nature Wildlife of Britain, which covers everything from trees, wild flowers and fungi to wild animals including mmmals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and insects.

Use the leaves, twigs and other natural items collected from the wild to make a collage, inspire your artwork etc

My favourite autumn gardens to visit

Westonbirt National Arboretum, Tetbury, Glos GL8 8QS. Final entry to the arboretum is at 4:30pm from March – November (inclusive), and at 4pm December – February (inclusive). (01666 880220;www.forestry.gov.uk/westonbirt)

Fountains Abbey & Studley Royal, Ripon, North Yorks HG4 3DY. Open daily to end Oct, 10am-4pm (01765 608888; www.fountainsabbey.org.uk)

Pensthorpe, Fakenham, Norfolk N21 0LN. Open daily until Dec 31, 10am-5pm (01328 851465; www.pensthorpe.com)

Sheffield Park Garden, East Sussex TN22 3QX. Open daily until Oct 31, 10.30am-5.30pm (01825 790231; www.nationaltrust.org/uk/sheffieldpark)

Old Court Nurseries, Colwall, Worcs WR13 6QE. Daily until Oct 16, 11am-5pm (01684 540416; www.autumnasters.co.uk)

Winkworth Arboretum, Godalming, Surrey GU8 4AD. Open daily until Oct 31, 10am-5pm (01483 208477; www.nationaltrust.org.uk)

The Dingle Nurseries & Garden, Frochas, Welshpool, Powys SY21 9JD. Open daily, 9am-5pm (01938 555145; www.dinglenurseryandgardens.co.uk)

Hillier Gardens and Arboretum, Jermyns Lane, Romsey SO51 0QA. Open daily October 10am to 6pm (last entry 5pm and November to March 10am to 5pm (last entry 4pm) (www.hants.gov.uk)


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