Au­tumn colour? Bah, hum­bug

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

DON’T see the point of au­tumn colour. It’s all very well say­ing ‘isn’t We­ston­birt won­der­ful?’, but most peo­ple have gar­dens that are far too small for groves of Parrotia per­sica and av­enues of Acer pal­ma­tum. Be­sides, gar­den­ing is all about growth—cel­e­brat­ing the beauty of plants and flow­ers—so it seems to me that re­joic­ing in their death throes is ghoul­ish in the ex­treme. I pre­fer the last dahlias, roses and Michael­mas daisies, as well as the farewell flow­ers on our sum­mer bed­ding plants, all too soon to be an­ni­hi­lated by frost.

Nor do I fancy the stems of dead herba­ceous plants. Trendies rave about the beauty of the dry brown seed pods of Iris foe­tidis­sima and Phlomis rus­seliana, but mine are cut to the ground in Septem­ber. I like to get the beds clear and clean, plants neatly pruned and ti­died, ev­ery­thing mulched. I en­joy the gar­den house­work and the sense that I’m get­ting on top of the main­te­nance. They say that ev­ery hour spent in the gar­den be­fore Christ­mas is worth two hours after­wards.

As for all those bor­ing grasses —the Gramineae have no place in my gar­den ex­cept in lawns. With what plea­sure, last sum­mer, we burnt two large clumps of pam­pas grass, that per­ni­cious weed of Mediter­ranean cli­mates, on ei­ther side of our el­derly sum­mer house. I shall re­place them with fasti­giate Cu­pres­sus sem­per­virens, true sons of Italy.

We do have some au­tumn colour in our gar­den, al­though

Imainly by ac­ci­dent. The best comes from a line of Co­toneaster frigidus, the most tree-like of species, whose berries glow in the evening sun. But why cel­e­brate au­tumn any­way? There’s noth­ing to look for­ward to ex­cept colder tem­per­a­tures and darker days. It’s the sea­son of death and sea­sonal af­fec­tive dis­or­der.

Do I have a cop­ing mech­a­nism? Yes—this is also the sea­son for plant­ing new things and mak­ing plans and dream­ing of all the beau­ties that will flower for us next year for the first time. And soon will come the pre­co­cious har­bin­gers of spring: Mediter­ranean snow­drops such as Galan­thus regi­nae-ol­gae and all those ma­ho­nias and vibur­nums that bring colour and scent to the gar­den when one least ex­pects it.

Be­sides, I do like the gar­den in win­ter. I love the reg­i­mented stems of all those highly coloured Cor­nus and Salix cul­ti­vars and when the sun is low in the sky, it lights up the trunks of birches and maples. Then, our na­tive snow­drops open out, Cy­cla­men coum flow­ers for weeks on end and I look for the first signs of herba­ceous re-growth —fat red pe­onies nos­ing through the sur­face and the un­furl­ing flow­ers of helle­bores. The days are length­en­ing—win­ter is a sea­son of hope.

I am not alone in my dis­taste for au­tumn. Gra­ham Stu­art Thomas (Stu­art was a Chris­tian name, but he liked peo­ple to think he was dou­ble-bar­relled) wrote a book called Colour in the Win­ter Gar­den and was some­times even a lit­tle bor­ing about the joys of coloured stems and bark. He had no time for yel­low leaves and scar­let berries and told his old friend Don­ald Waterer: ‘I have never been much taken with au­tumn colour. I like ev­er­greens best at this time of the year.’

I have an­other cop­ing strat­egy to get us through the gloom of au­tumn. When its sea­sonal labours are done, we are free to take a win­ter’s rest our­selves. Then is the time to travel south, to leap into an aero­plane and make haste to Spain, Italy or Greece, where sum­mer is the sea­son of dor­mancy for plants and ev­ery­thing starts into growth in the au­tumn.

The olive groves of Si­cily and An­dalu­sia will soon be blue with Iris plan­i­fo­lia and their mead­ows white with sweet-scented Nar­cis­sus pa­pyraceus. Wild rose­mary will buzz with bees and scented Tea roses will bloom in the gar­dens of our friends. We shall meet red ad­mi­ral but­ter­flies again and find the storks over­win­ter­ing.

It’s enough to see us through the grim months ahead at home, of­fer­ing the re­as­sur­ance that life con­tin­ues and flow­ers still bloom and the re­al­i­sa­tion that eu­lo­gis­ing au­tumn colour is no more than whistling in the wind.

‘Re­joic­ing in plants’ death throes seems ghoul­ish in the ex­treme

Leaves of fire: it’s beau­ti­ful in ar­boreta such as We­ston­birt, but does au­tumn colour have a place in do­mes­tic gar­dens?

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