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