Autumn colour? Bah, humbug
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?