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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 08 December 2015 by Tim Ingram

An Autumn Retrospective

An Autumn Retrospective


(© Robyn Ingram)             

In his book 'The Garden in Autumn' the American gardener and philosopher Allen Lacy quotes a fellow thinker, Miguel de Unamuno, that 'the universal is the particular and the concrete, not the abstract or the general'. He writes of his experiences that result from the influence of the American climate in which latitude, daylength and weather - hot uncomfortable summers and long, bright and warm autumns - make the autumn garden the highlight of the gardening year. Great Britain certainly doesn't have the blazing autumn colours of New England, or even those found in another island country, Japan, but this autumn - at least in the south - has had some of the best colours that many gardeners will remember. The winds and rains of December can take away some of this memory and leave the garden much more forlorn (especialy considering the devastating flooding that has occurred in the north-west) but the autumn garden can still give a lot of pleasure and last well in to December.

Lacy contrasts the poetry inspired by autumn in Great Britain and N. America and takes for his introduction to a detailed journey through his and friends' gardens from mid-August to early December these lines by the poet Helen Hunt:

          The lands are lit

With all the autumn blaze of Golden Rod

And everywhere the purple asters nod

And bend and wave and flit.        

Where we live in the south-east of the UK most closely approaches the more continental climates of parts of N. America and Europe and this year for us has been particular for a relatively long, hot and dry summer and mild, wet autumn, just now beginning to turn as the first snowdrops appear through the ground. There are still plants showing colour and interest but the essential point that comes from reading Allen Lacy's book is how much richer the garden can be in autumn when you specifically plant for this season and consider the detail and variety of plants.                                                                                                                          

For the alpine gardener bulbs are an especial highlight - crocus, colchicum, cyclamen, sternbergia, early snowdrops - but there are also surprising small perennials such as Saxifraga fortunei. These are examples from a month or so ago in our garden - Crocus speciosus and several several forms of Saxifraga fortunei that came from the wholesale alpine nursery WHG Mann & Son in Essex (and originally from the alpine plantsman Ray Drew).

Crocus speciosus Forms of Saxifraga fortunes

The saxifrages are ideal grown in pots because of the fine detail of their flowers and lateness of season - but are also vulnerable to vine weevil, as are other members of the Saxifragaceae, notably heucheras. They also  make good garden plants for us in the shade of apple trees - even through the dry summer we have had this year - and these are a couple of varieties we bought from the Peters Nursery in Germany when they came to the Plant Fair at Great Dixter in October 2014 (see my Diary entry from that time). The article by Malcolm McGregor in the the December 2015 'The Plantsman' (Vol. 14, p. 242), describing the recent RHS trial of Saxifraga fortunei gives valuable detail on the species, and the smaller forms - e.g: 'Mount Nachi' - make ideal plants for cool troughs with autumn gentians and dwarf rhododendrons. Even if the flowers come so late in the year and are vulnerable to the weather, they are amongst the most attractive of all small perennials for their foliage right through the year.

Really though it is the wider garden that is most compelling in autumn, the trees and shrubs, leaf colours and fruits, and more robust perennials that can surprise and delight in different measure in different years. These are some examples.

This is the first year that I ever remember having grapes set on the ornamental vine Vitis vinifera 'Purpurea', a reminder that summer was hot and dry here in the south east! Fruit set in general was good (far too many apples to know what to do with), well illustrated by this crab apple - Malus 'Little Star' - which was bred by Hugh Ermen at Brogdale, who gave a plant to my father many years ago. This may be the same or a sister seedling of 'White Star', a crab now commercially available from commercial growers such a Frank Matthews on the Welsh borders. And a nice tree of the medlar 'Nottingham' (which we memorably used in flower on a Chelsea exhibit staged by the Kent Hardy Plant Society). This always excels in both fruit and colour in autumn - and is underplanted with several hundred bulbs of Galanthus 'Augustus' derived from a plant Val Bourne kindly gave to me maybe a decade ago.


A significant number of the trees grown in the garden have been grown from seed, including both Pinus patula and Liquidambar styraciflua on the left of this picture.

On the right, behind the variegated specimen of Cornus controversa, is best colouring birch I know, Betula ermanii, also raised from seed and magnificent for several weeks as the leaves turned. This colours reliably every year but the relatively warm and calm autumn this year kept this display for longer than normal.

This birch is flanked by the native B. pendula on the left and B. utilis jacquemontii on the right (which is frankly very disappointing in autumn but then glorious for its bark right through winter). As these have matured and made sizeable trees we have gradually removed the lower branches and lifted the canopy. These are two pictures, from above and below, which now open the view through to a fine tree of Magnolia x kewensis 'Wada's Memory'. (This is Jim Gardiner's description in 'Magnolias - A Gardener's Guide': "The fragrant flowers are borne on leafless stems between March and late April in such profusion that they present the viewer with a glistening white pyramid of flower").

Elsewhere in the front garden, the rampant climber Parthenocissus quinquefolia has clambered high into a mature birch planted around 50 years ago when the house was built, giving it a definite moment of glory in the autumn!

Amongst the perennials these two African Impatiens, tinctoria and rothii are surprising and exciting plants for autumn. Both are root hardy when well established but cut back by the first frost so benefit from a long and mild autumn. Even though both wilt sadly through dry summers they revive with cooler and wetter weather and have been especially good this October and November. (John Grimshaw gives a valuable review of these and other species in his blog from around five years ago, and there are many useful annuals for those gardeners happy  with the serendipity of the more natural and untidy garden, where plants are allowed to self-sow).

Impatiens tinctoria Impatiens rothii
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