Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!


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Last leaf’s fall

I’ve been looking through a lot of Advent themed poetry over the past weeks in preparation for our Advent service at church and I’ve been struck by the number of poems that draw on fallen leaves as a means of illustrating the bleakness of this season.

“He will come like last leaf’s fall.

One night when the November wind

Has flayed the trees to bone.”

Rowan Williams

The difference between November and December in the garden and in our parks is striking. Although I tend to think of October as the best time for leaf colour, it is November when we see the most dramatic colours, usually just before they fall, and then by December all we are left with are the bare bones of the branches.

Local trees on the way to work (c) Elizabeth Malone

In our garden, November brought some unexpected gems of colour on plants that are perhaps not normally known as providers of autumn glow. The leaves on our strawberries in pots on the patio turned a glorious strawberry jam red – how appropriate!

Strawberry leaves (c) Elizabeth Malone

Some of our blueberries also produce amazing leaf colour, a real added bonus.

Blueberry in autumn (c) John Malone

Two shrubs, in particular, provide us with a more predictable technicolour display – berberis and continus. Cotinus, often known as the smoke bush due to its clouds of small dusky flowers, is a plant that loves to play with the light. On a summer’s evening I like trying to capture the colour of the rays shining through the dark red leaves but in the autumn the leaves seem to glow in their own right as they morph steadily from a red wine colour through to burnt orange before falling. They are also a brilliant leaf for capturing raindrops and, let’s face it, this autumn has certainly provided us with a lot of that!

Cotinus leaves after rain (c) Elizabeth Malone

Berberis is a plant that puts up a fight. I remember us having one in the garden when I was growing up and my parents eventually got rid of it as they grew tired of being scratched by its spiky thorns every time they walked down the garden! We have two which are planted in what are mostly safe places. One under the hawthorn tree and the other at the back of the border. This particular plant is of a columnar form and I seem to recall its label describing it as a pillar of fire in the autumn. I’m pleased to say that it does generally live up to this reputation.

Berberis (c) John Malone

The star of the autumn show this year has been our cherry, Prunus Kojo-no-mai, which we bought in a sale in the spring as it had already finished flowering. We were looking for something to fill a large pot in the front garden in due course so saw this as an investment for the future. I mentioned recently that we rather miss our large cherry tree both for its frothy spring blossom and its cherry red autumn leaves, and so this was a small replacement. We weren’t thinking about autumn colour when we bought it back in April and as we entered October it didn’t look as if it was going to do much. How wrong we were as November brought along a spectacular fiery display!

Prunus ‘Kojo-no-mai’ (c) John Malone

Some of our autumn colour is more hidden away. Our Virginia creeper climber, which we brought here as a cutting from our first garden almost exactly twenty years ago, adorns the back of our shed. It changes colour quite suddenly and will drop its leaves in an instant so you have to be quite quick to catch its display of yellow. Whilst it does a great job of covering the back of the shed, it’s always been a slightly irritating plant as it drops its leaves first and their stalks second. This means going round the garden picking up stalks one by one – very time consuming! Within days, all that is left is a skeletal framework of stems waiting for the small pink pip-like buds to appear, signalling that spring is on the horizon.

Virgina creeper mid-October (c) Elizabeth Malone

Christmas, however, is a time to take advantage of the skeletal forms of trees and plants. Acers are normally known for their vivid autumn colour but ours, another plant inherited from my mum, has pale green and cream leaves which have a pink tinge all year round and don’t put on a spectacular autumn display. This year the first frost caused them to drop almost overnight but what is left behind is a structure of almost silver branches which are just perfect for adorning with Christmas baubles!

Acer ready for Christmas (c) Elizabeth Malone

We are also careful not to prune back our black elder too early. Sambucus Nigeria ‘Black lace’ looks quite innocent in a garden centre but it can grow up to three metres high. The RHS recommend pollarding it back, potentially even to ground level in the spring although we’ve never been quite that brave. We do cut ours back quite drastically as it seems to get leggy and misshapen. However, when the leaves first fall, and that’s often not until quite near the end of November, we try to shape the plant a little and then it provides the perfect support for an array of Christmas lights. It’s just at the base of the patio and so provides a perfect seasonal glow through the really dark days of December.

November sunrise (c) Elizabeth Malone

“Spirit of place. Spirit of time. Reform

The rugged oaks and chestnuts. Now they stand

Make and pallid giants out of storm

And out of sorts. It is the autumn’s end.” Elizabeth Jennings.


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Autumn’s gold

I confess that I find the autumn garden a confusing place.  When the calendar is flipped over to September, with any luck your borders will still be lush, bursting with colour and the air is still warm but head into November and it’s a damp, grey and increasingly cold story – the opposite ends of the season could not be more different.

 

The heart of the border (c) John Malone

Depending on when the first frost decides to make an appearance, the border can suddenly be transformed in a matter of days from high summer glory to a mush of brown, a sorry reminder that winter is just around the corner.  I am always thrilled when the border does still look good in September.  This year it did and also continued well into October but I can honestly say that it’s taken years of practice!  There’s no denying that I’m naturally drawn to spring plants and my love of the colour purple, bar the Michaelmas daisy, is a colour of the spring and summer garden whereas autumn says reds, oranges and gold.

 

Aster Cotswold Gem (c) Elizabeth Malone

The most vibrant gold in the garden this autumn has been the resurgence of a rudbeckia which I thought had gone away.  I planted it about five years ago but after year two it vanished.  Last year it reappeared very late in the season and produced about six flowers.  To my astonishment, this year it has grown steadily throughout the summer and in August began to reward us with a stunning display of hundreds of deep sunshine yellow flowers which have continued well into autumn.  This rudbeckia has definitely been my ‘autumn gold’.

 

Rudbeckia (c) John Malone

Our grasses provide a more subtle gold with their slowly bleaching stems and fronds as autumn progresses.  Stipa Tenuissima provides a swathe of gold in early autumn but as winter approaches it is almost white.  And to go with our precious metal, our fabulous ruby red Panicum has been looking particularly splendid this autumn.  The leaves look fantastic backlit by the sun but the flowers are almost black in colour.  I know that grasses are often perceived as rather trendy but I wouldn’t be without them as there are so many different colours and shapes and they are also often very tactile.

 

Stipa and panicum surround the pond (c) Elizabeth Malone

Thinking ahead to next autumn we need more gold, that is, in the way of oranges and yellows.  Our ‘hot’ border seems to have become very dark red, again almost black, as a couple of giant Obsidian dahlias have taken over.  I’ve taken some cuttings of a yellow Honka dahlia in the hopes of injecting more lighter, brighter contrasting flowers.  Something with a good depth of orange would also be good.

Yellow ‘Honka’ dahlia (c) John Malone

Another lesson to be learnt this year is that the late summer / autumn border is much, much taller than the spring / summer border!  This has been accentuated by my very late developing cosmos which failed to flower before September (I expected them to flower in July!) and which shot up to over seven feet tall!  In mid-October they were looking fabulous but it was hard to find some of the lower growing spring plants beneath these giants to check on their health.  When September decided to deliver its month’s rainfall in just a day or two, all these tall plants were bending under the weight of water.  Some emergency staking brought them back upright but now the wind seems to have become stronger.  I get the sense that we are battling the elements as we try to cling on to summer.

 

Cosmos – taller than the fence! (C). John Malone

Our September break to the Netherlands gave us sight of a really interesting ‘brown’ autumn border.  On an extremely wet day in the seaside town of Katwijk-en-See I was really taken with the planting outside the church.  In many respects it was classic Dutch ‘Piet Oudolf’ prairie-style planting in drifts involving grasses and lots of interesting sedums and seed heads.  Sodden with rain, the plants all looked a deeper colour than they would have done in the sunshine.  It was a very clever way of easing the passer-by into autumn rather than pretending that it was still summer.

 

Katwijk-en-See (c) Elizabeth Malone

Since our return from holiday, the garden mostly seems to have been drenched.  October has been nothing if not consistent – when did you last leave church on a Sunday morning in the dry?!  For now the leaves remain on the trees, but for how much longer?  The first really nippy morning brought a pool of gold leaves down to circle each tree I pass on the way to the station of a morning.  Soon there will be piles of leaves to be cleared from the lawn.  I really miss our cherry tree which used to produce glorious red autumn leaves.  Many of our leaves come from our lilacs and they tend to just turn brown and die.  Our neighbour’s magnolia isn’t a lot better.  Both are, of course, really useful for creating leaf mould as they do turn to mulch quite quickly.  For our autumn gold, we must keep our fingers crossed for the birch which should provide us with a lovely golden glow, often against stormy leaden skies.

Golden autumn sunrise (c) John Malone

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold. …

So dawn goes down to day,

Nothing gold can stay.

“Nothing gold can stay” by Robert Frost

 


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November dreary? Not here!

Today I read in a gardening magazine that November is such a dreary month. Normally I would agree with that without a moment’s hesitation but this morning, as I looked out the back door onto a sparkling lawn and vivid blue skies, I begged to differ.

In London and the South East I think it’s been a relatively mild autumn so far. We’ve had one or two frosts, enough to blacken the dahlia leaves, but they’ve passed fairly rapidly as daytime temperatures have remained on the warm side. I can’t work out if it’s been wet or dry, however, as we’ve certainly had some torrential downpours that have gone on for several hours but we’ve not had the dank November gloom that often descends. As a result, several plants have taken it upon themselves to continue shining bright. This little rudbeckia was one I grew from seed last year and it left it rather late to return, finally reappearing around early October and causing me to puzzle a great deal over what it was going to be!

November is also the month for Nerines, which seem to be growing in popularity judging by the number of mentions in the gardening press and on the radio/TV that I’ve noticed this year. Ours were given to me in a bundle of newspaper about ten year’s ago by someone who no longer had need of them. Not a lot happened for the first few years but more recently they have been a beautiful surprise as they emerge between the debris of other plants dying back.

Of course some things look spectacular as they die back. This morning I turned around to catch the sun streaming through the fading leaves and flowers of our favourite red grass. I think it’s a Panicum but I really must dig out the label (I keep a box of them) and check! It really does look like an autumn bonfire!

Whether it’s been an affect of the dry summer but the autumn colour this year seems to have been particularly intense. I’ve passed some spectacular looking trees on the drive to work. I’ve never consciously planted anything for autumn colour in our garden and yet we have a number of plants dotted around which are really special at this time of year. I always love the mysterious dark red of the Cotinus (Royal Purple) during the summer but today it was contributing to autumn’s gold with the sun streaming through it.

Elsewhere our berberis (we have two – what on earth is the plural – berberi? Berberises?) were glowing fiery red. No one could ever accuse them of November gloom!

And so I have just checked the BBC Weather app. I fear November has been lulling us into a false sense of security as the week ahead looks as if it will herald the arrival of winter with temperatures set to plummet. Thankfully anything tender has been moved to the greenhouse and the olives have been bubble wrapped. Now it looks like we need the human equivalent, so get ready to dig out those winter woollies, all those reds and golds may look very beautiful but they’re not going to keep us warm!


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The inactive gardener

Over the past couple of months I have really appreciated the view outside the back door and that’s because I’ve spent a great deal of time at home and most of it confined to indoors and all because I sat down! Sadly sprained knees and gardening are not good partners and it’s been particularly frustrating during September and into October when the garden is in its final blaze of glory before autumn deepens into winter.

Stage one of the sprained knee coincided with a few days holiday in the Cotswolds and a lot of garden visiting, all done at a hobble. A revisit to Hidcote was much more enjoyable than the last time we went (three years ago). A new visitor entrance seems to have enabled people to spread out more quickly. It was also the one garden where the plant centre resulted in a purchase – a gorgeous shocking pink Salvia which, unfortunately due to the knee, is still sitting its pot outside the backdoor.

One thing that has struck me whilst I’ve been at home and that is that the birds are returning. It might seem an odd thing to say but it’s well known that our garden birds tend to vanish in August. I used to think it was my imagination but then I read a very useful answer to this question provided by the RSPB who explain that birds have come to the end of their mating season and are moulting their plumage. This makes them quite reclusive as they don’t want to be vulnerable to predators. However, in the last few weeks I’ve become much more aware of movement in the garden as flocks of great tits and goldfinches are one more flitting around our birch tree. The wood-pigeon has been particularly active too but that’s because it has been gorging itself on a diet of grass seed, sprinkled down in an attempt to cover our drought-induced bare patches, followed up by a dessert course of deliciously bright orange pyracantha berries, growing very conveniently at pigeon height just under the hawthorn.

The squirrels are also more active too. They are waiting for me to plant my spring bulbs! I’ve even spotted them scouting around the patio pots. Well they are out of luck as, until my knee heals, there’s going to be no bulb planting done around here! However, I am determined that I am going to have a good display of bulbs next Spring, unlike this year where I had virtually none left in my pots and the tulips I did have were not the ones I planted! The bulbs were ordered promptly in September and are now sitting in the cupboard under stairs. Before I plant them, I am first heading to the DIY store to pursue a cunning plan that involves the purchase of chicken wire and the creation of some pot protectors. I have a selection of miniature iris reticulata in purple (hopefully like the ones I grew in 2015 – see below), two types of multi-stemmed narcissi, one pale lemon and the other brilliant yellow with a vibrant orange trumpet, and finally a selection of tulips to top them off. I will also need to acquire some bedding plants to top off the pots and provide some winter colour and I will confess that I”m not quite sure how bedding plants and chicken wire will mix.

But before we get too carried away into winter and next spring, one of the pleasures of the last few weeks has been a final flurry of roses. In fact some of my roses have flowered better during late September and October than they did back in May and June as the drought began to bite. My Shropshire Lad was very considerate in producing a high bloom that I could see easily from inside the house but the distant yellow glow of Togmeister had me hobbling out down the garden to take a sniff!

Finally, as we prepare to turn the clocks back, we’ve been enjoying some stunning harvest moons rising eerily between the silhouetted branches of the birch tree. I have been busy rehearsing ‘Ruddigore’ too and I am reminded of the ghost’s song in Act 2, “When the night wind howls, in the chimney cowls, and the bat in the moonlight flies. Then inky clouds, like funeral shrouds, sail over the midnight sky”.