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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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