Since the end of August the garden has taken one battering after another. In Broadstairs we have experienced gales from every point on the compass, heavy rain and unusually chilly nights. By the end of September both the Jungle Garden and the Gin & Tonic Garden looked more like they usually do in early November. Any hopes of an Indian summer were dashed by some of the soggiest October days since records began.
When conditions change for the worse in autumn, the garden quickly reaches the point of no return. In some ways this is a blessing. I stop stressing about everything looking picture-perfect and start to think about how I might sensitively manage the journey towards winter. The tenderest plants are steadily moved inside, others are cut back so that they don’t act like a sail in the wind, and others are introduced to keep the dream alive for a few more weeks. Late-flowering gingers, nerines, passion flowers, salvias and brugmansias are a godsend at this time of the year. They flourish in cooler, wetter conditions than we’ve enjoyed for many months. Some of the coleus are still good too, especially the smaller-leaved cultivars such as ‘Lord Falmouth’ and ‘Burgundy Wedding Train’. Those with larger leaves are already starting to look like ancient handkerchieves that have been boiled for too long. The limp and faded will soon be cleared to make way for bulb planting. Over the coming days I’ll need to find new homes for a growing collection of bromeliads, including the airplants that adorn the trees in the Jungle Garden. They are considerably more resilient outdoors than one might expect, but they won’t like it when it gets properly cold.
The allotment took the same pummelling as the garden. In some respects our plot, being on an open site, is more exposed and therefore more vulnerable in stormy weather. In other respects the lack of obstacles funnelling the wind and intensifying its strength is a blessing. Half the Jerusalem artichokes were toppled; one plant was lifted clean out of the ground, tubers and all. The main dahlia bed, planted three deep, was pushed over to one side with several plants broken or twisted at the base. No amount of staking was going to save them from 60mph winds from the north. This is enough to tear single blooms clean off their stems.
Our chrysanthemums and helichrysums have proved very resilient. I have not grown either since I was a teenager and it’s been great to reacquaint myself with these wonderful, long-lasting flowers. The chrysanthemums appear to be rudely happy on the allotment. Most were grown from cuttings delivered in June and they have made substantial plants. ‘Spider Bronze’ has yet to flower but is covered in buds, whilst ‘Blenda Purple’, ‘Dixter Orange’, ‘Bruno Bronze’, ‘Littleton Red, ‘Smokey Purple’ and ‘Patyon Blaze Red’ are all putting on a cheerful show. I know chrysanthemums are not everyone’s cup of tea. They’ve been cast into the horticultural shadows by dint of the their ubiquity, but surely they must be due a comeback soon? If dahlias can do it, so can chrysanthemums. Personally I love the scent, it’s one of the top notes in the bittersweet perfume of autumn. There will be more chrysanthemums next year, that’s for sure.
I was on the road for much of this week; in and out of the car, on and off with the wretched facemask, seeing people I’ve not seen for months. It was refreshing but I missed home. How quickly I have become used to staying put! On the journey through Hampshire I stopped off at Longstock Park Water Gardens, lovingly maintained by the John Lewis Partnership. I have visited these sublime gardens on the River Test many times, but always in May. It was marvellous to enjoy them in a different guise – a little scruffier, a little more natural, overblown and fading. Vistas were fuzzier and the water surface sprinkled with fallen oak leaves. As I progressed ducks landed clumsily in the chilly water and frogs plopped in to its shallow greyness from the slippery grassy banks. It was all splendidly magical, if a tad melancholy; a different perspective on a garden I thought I knew well.
Back at home my list of jobs to do in the garden is extensive. I’ve purchased more bulbs than ever before; what possessed me? Now I shall have to plant them at the same time as lifting dahlias, finding homes for ever-larger gingers and brugmansias, repairing the edges of allotment beds, clearing out the workshop and so on. The Beau sees a list on the dining room table and scuttles off in the opposite direction. Whatever I do I am always on the back foot in autumn. This year I don’t have the complication of being in China, so whatever I achieve over the next two weeks will be more than I would have accomplished normally. I shall press on with the soul aim of staying one step ahead of winter. By Christmas everything should be put to bed. TFG.