October- eye-catching autumn

Published: 22 October 2020

Last update: 22 October 2020

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This blog post is written by Chris Flynn, Head Gardener Chris Flynn Head Gardener
Autumn colour

What to do, what to do, what to do. Regularly check your weather reports, be prepared to change everything at the drop of a hat but do make time to observe the seasonal changes. You never know what might catch your eye this year!

Though a little later than in a normal year the annual long grass work has nearly been completed, with the earliest areas having also had their second ‘grazing’ cut (carried out by mechanical means, no actual grazing…yet!) We tend to focus this particularly on areas where there is a wealth of bulbs so they will look their very best for the spring. This year we’ve left a few more areas longer allowing for more seed set for some of our late flowering plants. These areas also function as refuges for the abundance of wildlife that calls the meadows home. It will be interesting to see what manner of primary succession begins to occur in those areas that will be on a varied two- or three-year rotation. We might help them along a bit with some direct sowing of blackthorn, hawthorn, dogwood, wayfarers and cherry plum. Once established these can adapt to the occasional thump of a flail and regenerate to provide cover and food sources to the garden residents.

As much as I love the golds, silvers, purples and pinks of the meadow grass flower and seed heads, my training is steeped in the want of a good stripe! In preparation for the return of the cylinder mowers next year we’ll be out scarifying (as long as the weather holds) to drop the heights of the lawn, remove the thatch and moss build up and have them set for stripes come the spring. If we get it right it should look scruffy, for a little while at least, but it’s what we’ll need for those photogenic twin greens come next season.

It looks like it’s another good year for autumn colour. The usual suspects are at their best with a few less usual supporting characters. Bright reds in some of the poplars, deep purples appearing amongst some of our more exotic oaks and an almost florescent yellow acer (species still to be determined), which I’ve never given the time of day to before, have all stopped me in my tracks at various points this year. A real revelation for me this season came from the colour changes in our herbaceous plants, namely Amsonia. Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ on the Causeway has turned a stunning limey yellow, which really sets off the drooping, dark stems and beautiful purple flowers of Symphyotrichum ‘Calliope’. The other is Amsonia hubrichtii which has produced fantastic orange stems. Really must get that one out of the nursery and out into the garden.

My usual top three from the arboretum have put on their annual show. We’ve a number of Parrotia persica in the garden, but one particular specimen produces the most incredible kaleidoscope of colour in its leaves going from near jet black and deep purple, through reds and oranges and back to apple green. Stewartia pseudocamellia Koreana Group is another perennial favourite. It really is a tree that has it all. Good form, incredible bark, delicate summer flowers and a glorious shock of orange.

We’ve just planted a few other species in the South Front shrub borders so I’m really looking forward to seeing how they fare. The third is one that I’ve not seen grown widely, but again exhibits a huge range of colours, but in more muted tones. Acer tartaricum is well worth looking up. Another delicate little tree, but year on year holds its own against the big boys of the autumn colour game.

Of course, at this time of year, in the absence of the first frosts it’s not just the changing leaves that provide colour in the garden. The more exotic elements of our collection that require a long season really come into their own. It still does feel like walking into another world rounding a yew hedge from the stark formality of the South Front and transitioning into the Exotics Garden, a tropical paradise (when it’s not raining) full of colour and scent, big flowers and even bigger foliage. It’s a brilliant reminder of the escapism that horticulture can represent. It’s an area that can transform a garden experience and transport you to a far-off land, whilst maintaining a sensible distance to the café. Year on year as things start to fill out and mature, we get a better sense of what the garden might eventually become. Whilst some gaps are gradually closed, other niches are created that will support growing something new. We’ll continue to work on future developments through the next year or two to further diversify the plant collection, adjusting to the changes in the gardens microclimate and keep pushing our luck with regards to hardiness, because you never know what you might just get away with!