Coming To Terms With Autumn


So, I am back in Blighty and it feels very much like autumn has arrived. As far as jet-lag is concerned, so far, so good, but it’s taken a day or two to recover my energy and get back outdoors.

I know many people for whom autumn is their favourite season. I am not one of them. I struggle to come to terms with the shortening days, the cooling nights and general untidiness in the garden at this time of year. I don’t like to see nature going into reverse, especially just when things seem to be going so well.  I know this is slightly irrational and there’s much left to enjoy outdoors before winter arrives, but I guess I am a spring kind of guy, through and through.

But don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike autumn.  To be truthful I am a little premature in bemoaning the end of summer, September being a month that can so easily be hot and sunny. However, this year we’ve made little progress on that score since May and once again the UK is being battered by high winds and torrential rain. The hose-pipe bans imposed in spring seem more ridiculous now than they did then, and yet In Turkey and the USA there are unprecedented droughts. It’s been a strange old year and no mistake – and it’s not over yet!

In our London garden the scaffolding still dominates (why do builders never finish anything on time?).  I have almost given up making any further effort until bulb planting time which is just days away now.  So to get over my early autumn blues I set off to our local park (Waterlow Park in Highgate) to see what was brightening up the beds there.


Top of the list and stalwart of any garden in autumn is Sedum spectabile “Autumn Joy” (above and below). Opening a kind of Celadon green with pinkish tips, the flowers age through soft rose to antique pink.  Planted alongside Stipa gigantea, Calamagrostis “Karl Foerster” and Calamagrostis brachytricha (Korean feather reed grass) they make a great display, the lowering light catching the wind ruffled plumes of the grasses.


Towering over other plants in the herbaceous borders, Eupatorium maculatum ‘Riesenschirm’ (joe pye weed) makes a superb architectural perennial, with its huge heads of pink-purple flowers attracting bees and butterflies. The fluffy seedheads look good well into winter, but watch out for seedlings, which will pop up everywhere the following year. Try planting Eupatorium with the purple smoke bush, Cotinus coggygria, or one of the black elders such as Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla “Guincho Purple”. The purple leaves make a great foil for the flowers and pick up the dark colouring of the flower stems.


Another colourful perennial for the back of the border, Helianthus “Lemon Queen” was growing close by, punctuating a sea of white Anemone japonica (Japanese anemone).  The plants are tall and upright, covered in small lemon-yellow sunflowers.  Despite its height the plants support themselves well without any staking, which is a great attribute for low maintenance or exposed gardens.  The main stems can be pinched out or given a Chelsea chop at the end of May to keep the plant more compact – actually the same goes for Sedum and this will prevent the clumps from collapsing in the middle under the weight of the flowers.

For something shorter, but equally cheerful, there are few perennials to beat Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’ .  This is a plant favoured by my two of my garden design heroes, Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden, the creators of the New American Garden style of landscape architecture.  ‘Goldsturm’ grows to about 60cm high and is covered in bright, golden flowers in late summer, each with a chocolate-brown cone at the centre.  It works well planted in swathes with grasses, sedums, Echinacea and asters.  I managed to catch this one in a momentary flash of sunlight, growing amongst the courgette plants in the community kitchen garden.


And last, but not least, no autumn garden is complete without Michaelmas daisies such as Aster amellus ‘Violet Queen’ (below).  They combine well with yellow flowers, which complement the asters’ central “eye”.  Left to sprawl they will helpfully cover other perennials which are past their best.

So for now I’ve convinced myself that autumn is not all bad.  I even managed to find that greatest autumn treasure of all, the conker.  Prized straight from its spiky green shell, I still have the same boyish wonder over these burnished brown nuts – they are so perfect and tactile.   The squirrels nearby looked less amused, having already taken a nibble at the most of the others on the ground.  This one’s staying in my pocket boys!


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