Not just an afterthought

Nigel Colborn discovers his inner autumn - a season that should be planned for not tacked on at the end of summer.

Words: Nigel Colborn

It’s never difficult to tell a gardener from a dilettante. The former will be busy every day, regardless of weather. A true gardener tackles big annual tasks with relish, digging, turning compost, planting bulbs by the barrowload, scrubbing out the green house – all with stolid determination.

But during the year’s quiet periods, when sane people relax on patio loungers or toast their skins on beaches, gardeners will still be hyperactive, ‘pethering’ the soil, tending plants or ‘tricolating’ their sheds. Gardeners’ pockets always contain string, penknives, secateurs, plant labels and sometimes, notebooks for recording successes, failures or new plant names. Even at rest, gardeners will distractedly tweak off dead leaves, pinch out shoot tips or just fiddle with foliage.

The dilettante, on the other hand, won’t be seen outdoors unless the weather is perfect. Gardening is strictly seasonal, beginning around Easter when a trip to the garden centre results in a car-load of plants purchased on impulse without the remotest idea of a planting plan. The season ends, for horticultural non-combatants, as summer closes. And in the case of urban dilettantes, that happens, not at the September Equinox but when the media announces that autumn is here.

Seasons, to a gardener, are stages in the year’s cycle. Winter is there for big jobs – fundamental pruning, re-planting or seismic design shifts. Spring brings a frenzy of seeding and planting, building up to summer’s joyous excess.

But what of autumn? What of the ‘mellow fruitfulness’ of a golden September afternoon? What of the blowsy loveliness of a well-planned autumn border, the softness of the air or the sweet, lethargy of working in an autumn garden, knowing that there’s no urgency? Overlook that and you do yourself out of the most satisfying part of the year.

Autumn has a deliciously melancholic beauty. Like Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, it has a contentment, a calm acceptance of the inevitable decay needed, if another year is to be generated from this one’s recycled materials. Autumn joy can be elusive, though, because the season has poorly defined boundaries. The maturing sun’s ‘close-bosomed friend’ is hopeless at reading schedules. Instead, he can sidle in at any time, from early September to mid October. And he comes and goes. August can feel wintry, in a bad year whereas one can sometimes lunch outdoors in early November.

People who abandon their gardens at summers end miss all that. And in the well-planted garden, they miss the best colour. A huge number of perennials, particularly those from North America, are at their best in autumn. Think of all the asters, rudbeckias, heleniums, helianthemums, Vernonia and Eupatorium – so many in warm, comforting colours. Autumn monkshoods, late salvias, the towering Leucanthemella, monster cardoons, falolloping Lespedeza, urgent red hot pokers and elegant penstemons all bring deliciously fresh colours, flowering on and on as the days shorten.

Autumn bulbs take colour a step further. Their pure, gentle hues – pinks of nerines, wild cyclamen and Schizostylis; lilac-mauves of colchicums and Tulbaghia – all contrast sweetly with the autumnal tints of maturing foliage. Lawns green up, too, bringing late freshness to contrast with the sere colours of spent perennials and yellowing foliage. And, since the sun often rises lazily through morning mists, the colour and quality of light, at this time of year, can move even the most hardened old turnip grower to become moist-eyed at the beauty.

There’s more to this, though, than mere beauty. A richly stocked autumn garden favours the diversity of wildlife, especially if it has become a little neglected and seedy. Late butterflies, particularly peacocks, small tortoiseshells, red admirals and commas need to stoke up on nectar before hibernating. Hoverflies, bees and other pollinators will be hungry, too, so late flowers will help to sustain all these.

And if gardens are allowed to stay lush, full and unkempt beyond Christmas, wildlife continues to benefit. Traditional cutting back of perennials, each October, is a terrible practice and has nothing to commend it. Shorn borders look ugly and are mind-warpingly boring from cutting time to Easter. Dying and subsiding herbaceous plants, on the other hand, are beautiful. Like romantic ruins, they subside gently, retaining elements of form and grace until they finally disintegrate, or, until they are tidied away in late winter or early spring.

Dead perennials are a food source, too. Their seed sustains finches, buntings, siskins and other seed eaters. And small invertebrates which shelter in the crisp vegetation, provide food for winter tits, wrens, goldcrests, dunnocks and robins.

A garden not planted for all seasons is a failed garden. Spring and summer, in all but the most inept planting schemes, tend to look after themselves and need minimal planning. Most gardeners manage a bloom or two for winter – snowdrops and aconites, perhaps, or daphnes, wintersweet and hellebores – but a successful autumn display needs more careful planning. Autumn plants are less frequently promoted, may be difficult to find and are less likely to be bought on impulse. Our climate, though, is ideal for late colour. All you have to do is make room, in mixed borders, for plants that will sing out an autumnal Leitmotif: a single tree that colours up in October; a couple of late perennials – how about the stately Aster laevis ‘Calliope’ or a tall, rat-tailed Actaea? – and perhaps a Ceratostigma or Lespedeza for startling colour and you’re part way there.

If there’s more beauty, in an autumn garden, one is tempted outdoors more often. Besides, having attractive plants around also makes seasonal chores more enjoyable. Is it not more pleasant, to shovel compost or prune thorny rambling roses, if there are pretty things to see while you work?

We should be grateful to have such an enchanting season. In Singapore – a better planted, greener garden city than any capital on earth – the new Gardens by the Bay, have an entire section devoted to autumn colour. Close to the equator, where January is indistinguishable from June, they can only achieve this with plants which happen to have autumnal colours, rather than with species which turn dormant for winter. But the fact that they wanted to create an autumn effect shows just how much those gold, russet and brown tints are treasured.

Up here, in colder latitudes, our gardens need us now, and for weeks to come. And if we’ve got to be out there, finishing autumn chores, we’ll want our surroundings to be delightful at least until Christmas.