God, what a boring title! It’s the sort of thing you read in bad gardening magazines and the article then tells you how to grow the plants that the nursery trade is desperately trying to get rid of before the winter… But on the other hand, it does concisely state what this post will be about. Something anarchic inside me wants to suggest that you go out, buy a large tin of scarlet paint and pour it on your garden walls and paths, but I won’t. It’s a silly idea. And it’s a digression.
In my experience, if you want the garden to put on a good display in the later autumn then you have to start doing something about it several years in advance. By far and away my favourite autumn and winter shrub is quite widely available and not very expensive. It’s also disease-resistant and easy both to grow and maintain. Furthermore, it likes dampish soils. And the name of this paragon? Viburnum x bodnantense. The foliage is good all summer, and then in November, just as the leaves are falling, we are treated to little clusters of the sweetest-smelling pink flowers – and those flowers continue to bloom and scent the air right through to March and April. In fact there’s often a little, final, spring flush. I would imagine that because insects are less common, winter-flowering plants are more heavily scented, which is doubtless why our viburnums scents all the air around them. We’ve planted them in pairs, or short rows, in sheltered parts of the garden, and in these areas the atmosphere at this time of year is positively heady. Autumn and winter are the times you can remove off-sets near the base of the plant, to propagate it. If you’ve just bought your plant you should normally reckon to be able to remove offsets after 4-5 years – 3, if you want to push your luck. Maintenance is simple: remove superfluous growth with secateurs. The trouble is, I rarely do it in winter, because of the gorgeous flowers, and then springtime brings lambing. So many of my plants are a bit straggly, but what the Hell.
Plants like that viburnum are gardening mega-stars, but your garden can’t just be filled with the Great and the Good. It would be like a record collection entirely composed of Bach, Beethoven, Beetles and Ellington. Personally, there are times when I feel like a spot of Stiff Little Fingers, or the Leighton Buzzards:
No dry ice,
And flying pigs,
At the Leighton Buzzard gigs…
Happy sounds! But I’m afraid I’m digressing. Where was I? Ah yes, plants that give interest but in a more restrained, less full-on fashion. One of my favourites is a narrow-leaved variety of a wetland shrub: Rhamnus frangula asplenifolia. This shrub has delightful narrow cut leaves and it grows well in very wet spots in the garden. Bulbs look good beneath it and the caterpillars of Brimstone butterflies feed on it. But in autumn for just a few days it looks magnificent with almost flaming yellow leaves. It’s also very good-tempered and needs virtually no maintenance. Sadly, it’s not very easy to find in local garden centres – you’ll have to shop around. But it’ll be worth it (not, remember, if you have dry ground).
In every year, autumn brings surprises and this time round it has been a little fuchsia, Tom West, that Maisie bought quite cheap, as a rooted cutting, at a local garden centre in the spring. She stuck it in a pot and it has flowered all summer and now the coloured foliage is getting even better. I think it looks particularly good above the two rather pissed-off-looking frogs, at the base of the pot. Mark you, if I’d had to carry something that heavy for six months I’d be a touch fed-up, too.
Finally, another bought-in delight. We grow red-hot pokers very well in all but our dampest soils; they provide good flowers and foliage for most of the summer. But they tend to tail-off in the autumn, but with a notable exception: Kniphofia rooperi, which is still flowering six weeks after we bought it from our favourite specialist nursery, West Acre Gardens, in Norfolk. Over the past twenty years we’ve got a lot of stuff there: the prices are always reasonable, the plants healthy and the choice huge. Oh yes, and most important of all: and the staff are always helpful and cheerful. We’d be lost without them.
For those of you who are new to gardening , I’ll do the second of my beginners’ guides next week, when I return from Scarborough Museum, where I’m doing a talk on The Making of the British Landscape. What an interesting topic. Should be a sell-out. Maybe I should write a book about it…?