LOW LIGHT, RAINBOW LEAVES AND JEWEL-LIKE BERRIES IN AN ENGLISH GARDEN
At Great Dixter (http://greatdixter.co.uk) clusters of tight, unripened figs glow like little light bulbs on naked branches against the timber barn. A brilliant, self contained symbol of autumn on a November day.
There is an uncertain edge to the mix of fresh full-colour plants and the fading crispy hues of others.
Here clumps of Nerine bowdenii provide bursts of bright pink against a more subdued palette – they work because the clumps are repeated regularly along the length of the path.
More Nerines, at the base of the lower terrace, loving their place in the sun with garlands of Erigeron karvinskianus. This is November!
It is a classic and brilliantly reliable combination. The Nerines take over easily from the richer red of Centranthus ruber which billows over walls and steps in the early summer.
The real stars of the autumn show are plants which triumph when back lit by the early winter light. The common teasel (Dispascus fullonum) is a perfect example of this – an architectural plant which will grow happily from seed – and which will self seed happily when established. It catches the light brilliantly.
Here against the cherry-red seed capsules of the wonderful Euonymus europaeus, the teasels with their late afternoon haloes give the planting an intoxicating ethereal quality.
And then there are the berries. Worth taking note now and thinking of planting for hips or berries next year.
One of the greatest sources of wisdom on the best plant choices for autumn colour is John Massey of Ashwood Nurseries in the West Midlands (http://www.ashwoodnurseries.com). Massey is a self taught nurseryman who has been a plant collector, plant breeder and passionate gardener for forty years. He gives specialist talks throughout the year – which include a visit to his private garden. Absolutely a pilmrimage worth making
You know you are in the presence of the real thing when even his house is draped in a starry chain mail of yellow and orange foliage with the rainbow leaves of Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’ AGM falling so knowingly onto the deep green holly hedge.
And there is real golddust to come: when John tells you that the best yellow crab apple is Malus ‘Comtesse de Paris’ -an elegant tree with pearl-like golden fruit which hang down from slender red stalks
and that the better known Malus ‘Golden Hornet’ is no contest because its fruits turn brown so fast, it is the sort of rare and generous advice that can transform a garden. His other favourite crab apples are the long lasting ‘Red Sentinel’ and ‘Crittenden’, the larger red fruiting ‘Evereste’ – and ‘Sugar Time’ with really tiny berries. Perhaps his favourite of all is ‘Indian Magic’ (below) which has dark pink blossom and deep red fruit on long stems which become brighter orange as the winter progresses.
One of the prettiest crab apples we see in his garden is Malus ‘Toringo’ – the Japanese crab – a small, semi-weeping tree with fragrant flowers that are pink in bud but fade to white, and gorgeous butter yellow leaves in autumn and tiny blood red fruit.
As we are guided round the garden the conversation dances from Parthenocissus quinquefolia ‘Red Wall’ – a Virginia Creeper with particularly shiny green leaves in summer which turn a sensational flaming red, Euonymus alata compacta – the most reliable spindle for bright crimson leaf colour in Autumn and Hydrangea paniculata ‘Great Star’ which he was originally given by the late Princess Sturdza of the Jardin du Vasterival (http://vasterival.fr ) in Normandy and for whose support he feels indebted. ‘Great Star’ is the opposite of the worryingly, almost permanent, plumpness of one of the new super breed of hydrangeas such as Hydrangea arborescens ‘Incrediball’ – a wonderfully graceful hydrangea with clusters of fresh, white star-shaped flowers from late summer to autumn.
I am smitten by the violet-blue Aster ‘Little Carlow’ – which I have previously classified as just too brash and intense for the autumn garden – here looking airy and elegant amongst the bleached sketchy sheaves of grasses.
My favourite moment of all is when John stops to pick a tall, soft bottle-brush stem of Actaea matsumura ‘Elstead Variety’ from an elegant dancing group in full flower. We are all surprised and delighted by the intensity of its perfume. The Actaea are growing in brilliant combination alongside Euonymus bugneamus ‘Fireflame’ – which has a seductive limp quality to its milky green leaves and gorgeous perky apricot coloured seed heads –
and the sculptural, ruby-polished foliage of Cornus kousa ‘Miss Satomi’ – one of the finest small dogwoods which will have rich pink flower bracts in early summer
Important to remember, of course, that where acres of intricate planting are sadly not a possibility – just a single source of brightly coloured berries or rich autumn leaf colour can spectacularly transform a space.
Here at the entrance to Gravetye Manor, (http://www.gravetyemanor.co.uk), former home of eminent Victorian ‘wild’ gardener, William Robinson and now my favourite country house hotel – I love the rough simplicity of this planting of Rosa moyesii on either side of the entrance steps.Back in Camberwell a neighbour’s Cotinus ‘Grace’, has been pruned into a small tree which takes your breath away with the richness of its colour on a grey November day.Shifting down a scale, a Hosta sieboldiana var. elegans in a pot on my terrace suddenly hurtles – caramelises almost – into winter. Don’t forget to stop and look.