Outside the Backdoor

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

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August brings …

August brings the sheaves of corn,
Then the harvest home is borne.

When I first glanced at this month’s verse from Sara Coleridge’s The Garden Year I was tempted to start talking about harvesting fruit and other produce from around the garden, but then I looked ahead.  I need to save that for September!

Our garden isn’t full of sheaves or corn and probably never has been.  Prior to the houses being built here in the early 1950s, there were market gardens and, going even further back, it is likely that the land belonged to one of the local ecclesiastical establishments.  Even then I doubt that the monks or whoever were harvesting sheaves of corn here – more likely fruit and veg.

Stipa tenuissima (c) Elizabeth Malone

So for my ‘sheaves of corn’ I’m going to turn my attention to our grasses, many of which are currently in full ‘flower’ and billowing golden around the pond and in the border.  When the fashion for grasses first began, I wasn’t an immediate convert.  I thought that grasses were rather boring and that this was a bit of a fad, especially as garden designers and make-over programmes seemed obsessed with the peculiar black grass Ophiopogon which I still don’t like.  I think that it was probably the old grass borders at RHS Wisley that began to change my mind.  I imagine that it was an exceptionally well-timed visit one autumn that meant we saw the grasses in their full glory. 

Old grass borders at RHS Wisley in 2017 (c) John Malone

We grow a lot of Stipa Tenuissima in our garden, not all of it deliberately!  Stipa Tenuissima self-seeds extremely readily and we find it popping up all over the place.  Little tiny strands of plants can soon become a substantial clump.  It’s also known as ‘pony tails’ but in our household it should be known as ‘cats tails’.  On more than one occasion I’ve glanced down the garden and wondered what Bryggen, our ginger cat, is up to, only to realise that it’s a giant waving Stipa and not his tail!  (He does have an exceptionally bushy, grand tail!)

You can see why I sometimes get confused! (c) Elizabeth Malone

Two years ago I made room for one of my favourite grasses.  It’s another stipa, Stipa Gigantea.  With a name like that, I’m sure you can appreciate why I said ‘make room’ for it!  This is the golden oat grass which looks fabulous against a brilliant blue sky.  Last year I was really disappointed that it only had about one flower head but this year it has rewarded me with a few dozen.  It really has looked spectacular and I’ve learnt that it also has small yellow flowers that dangle like earrings. 

Stipa gigantea in flower (c) Elizabeth Malone

I love the way that grasses also always have a colloquial name – pony tails (Stipa tenuissima), oat grass (Stipa gigantea), switch grass (Panicum), zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis), cloud grass (Agrostis) and quaking grass (Briza) are the ones that we grow and I know about but there are many more.

My most recent acquisition is a Briza which has bell-shaped dangling seed heads which, as its colloquial name suggests, quake in the wind.  It’s only a hardy annual but experts suggest that it will self-seed and so I will have my fingers crossed for next year.  I might even try to save some seed and so it myself if I can work out when to do that.

My cloud grass was grown from seed, from a free packet send by a small nursery with some other plants.  Having not grown it before, I didn’t like to take a chance on following the packet instructions and scattering it where it was due to grow.  Instead I only scattered a small number and am very grateful that I did.  Nothing came up!  So the following spring I scattered some over a small pot and to my amazement they germinated.  I teased them out of the pot and planted them out into the border where a couple survived and went on to flower beautifully.  I sowed the remainder this spring and have a few small plants dotted around so fingers crossed for this year too.  However, they are small and fiddly so I’m not sure that I’ll be ordering more seed or collecting it for next year but let’s see.

Cloud grass (c) Elizabeth Malone

Less of a do-er has been our zebra grass, Miscanthus sinensis, which has now occupied several sites in our garden and struggled in nearly all of them. Could this year be different?  The strappy leaves are certainly taller than previous years so may be all the rain we’ve had has an effect?  It would be lovely if it did finally take off as it is rather fun – not many plants are stripey!

Miscanthus ‘zebrinus’ (c) Elizabeth Malone

Another favourite grass by our pond is a Panicum that has red-edged leaves and produces beautiful dark red, almost black flowers / seed heads in the autumn.  It seems perfectly suited to the lower light of September and October and I’ve taken numerous photos of it over the years, still trying to get the perfect shot that sums it up.  It is always a bit of a last blast of summer.  It will then stay with us, providing some structure in the garden during winter, until we cut it back in early spring and start the whole cycle again.

Panicum backlit by autumn sun (c) Elizabeth Malone

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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



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!