Our columnist Alan Titchmarsh reflects on the ups and downs of Autumn gardening, where this rag bag of a season occasionally gives us reasons to be joyous.
Nature now spreads around in dreary hue,
A pall to cover all that summer knew;
Yet, in the poet’s solitary way,
Some pleasing objects for his praise delay
It would be a mistake to think that John Clare’s Shepherd’s Calendar, first published in 1827, was either out of date or of little relevance to those of us not on first-name terms with Blackface and Herdwick, for there is much within its pages that strikes a note with the 21st-century gardener.
True enough, the pocket-sized book is a snapshot of long-gone days when it explains that ‘Scythes tinkle in each grassy dell’ in July; but in November, who could deny that ‘The landscape sleeps in mist from morn till noon’?
October for the gardener is neither one thing nor the other. It is decidedly a month of autumn, but then autumn has always been a time of change – a dustpan-and-brush of a season in which summer is swept up to make way for winter. It’s a month of sodden lawns and falling leaves, of intemperate gusts and unexpected shafts of sunlight. It is, in short, a meteorological rag bag of every kind of weather, but, as the poet reminds us, it does give rise to ‘pleasing objects’.
I love the way that, as the leaves fall, forgotten views hove into sight again. Our church spire, seen from my daughter’s bedroom window, loses its veil of tulip-tree leaves and enjoys again its moment in the sun. Just across the lane from our house, it rivals the majesty of the spire of Salisbury Cathedral and the bells now ring out unmuffled by foliage.
The leaf-strewn border beneath a grove of bamboos has become a carpet of pale-pink and white autumn-flowering Cyclamen hederifolium. Why more folk don’t invest in this little beauty for shady spots, I cannot imagine. It defies all logic to thrive with me even in dust-dry, root-ridden earth underneath not only a healthy ‘Bamboozle-um’, as that great gardener E. A. Bowles referred to his bamboo grove, but also under an ancient, spreading horse-chestnut tree.
The latter, when it’s not sucking all the moisture from under the cyclamens’ feet, is showering them with pock-marked leaves that, thanks to the sadly ubiquitous leaf blotch, begin to fall in late August.
They don’t seem to care; they push through the fallen vegetation and flaunt their reflex-petalled flowers in the rays of sunlight that reach them through the thinning canopy.
It’s still possible to buy huge discus-like corms of this cyclamen from certain sources, but they should be avoided. They will have been dug up from the wild and native colonies depleted. They often take unkindly to the uprooting, too, sitting and sulking in their new location rather than springing into life.
Pot-grown plants – smaller of corm, but bristling with health – will have been grown from seed and represent tremendous value. They will also establish themselves better and, if planted now, will settle in and increase their colony over the years by seeding themselves around.
Some gardeners make a note of plants that flower in their garden on Christmas Day. The list frequently offers surprises in the form of a brave rose or penstemon, but in October, too, it’s worth assessing just how much interest the garden offers, not only from those vivid members of the daisy family – the rudbeckias and the perennial asters – and other stalwart late-flowering perennials, but shrubs such as the smoke tree, Cotinus coggygria, in its purple-leaved forms, which nestle under a cloud of blushing frothy fluff well into autumn.
The fruits of the spindle tree, Euonymus europaeus, especially in its variety Red Cascade, vindicate those who believe there are no offensive colour clashes in Nature. Its fruits have orange berries that are revealed when an outer casing of shocking pink splits open.
Orange and cerise? I smiled when I saw a highly fashionable lady wearing a wedding outfit of exactly that combination recently. Where Nature leads, haute couture follows.
The cockspur thorn, Crataegus crus-galli, is aptly named, as it’s armed with spurs an inch or more long. Stand back from it and admire it in October, when its branches are laden with large, scarlet fruits that the birds will leave until last because they’re the gobstoppers of the berry world and need to be softened by ripeness to be palatable.
The tree outside our back door is old and wizened of trunk, but shows no diminution in vigour. Its shiny green leaves emerge in spring and are a perfect backdrop to the creamy-white hawthorn blossom. As well as offering bright fruits, its pale coppery autumn colour is breathtaking.
Clare again: ‘Such are the pictures that October yields,/To please the poet as he walks the fields.’
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