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We have been having the dream autumn for gardening. I cannot remember a better one even though I can look back over more than 50 years. Maybe the climate really is shifting for gardening in Britain. If so, this part of the shift is excellent news. Day after day the weather has been mild with clear skies and no conclusive frost at night. There have been none of the autumn gales which usually spoil the last flurry of flowers in a year and throw the changing leaves too quickly off the trees. It has been a pleasure to be gardening and a pleasure to look at the results both at home and away.
If autumn’s weather has changed, so has the dominant style in which gardeners exploit it. In the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath I have just been enjoying a rare oil painting of an English country house and its garden c1730. The house is Ladymead House in what was then the separate village of Walcot, but the artist is unknown. The picture was forgotten by posterity until 1977 when it was rediscovered in an upper room in Ladymead, by then a home for elderly ladies. It shows a modestly sized walled garden divided formally into two neat halves and adjoining a river beyond the perimeter. One side of the walled garden has a few upright trees spaced at intervals. The other has a cluster of taller trees, also grouped in a rectangular square. The picture is tidily designed, like the garden, and gives a most unusual glimpse of an English garden’s style in the years just after the poetry and landscaping of Alexander Pope. It all looks very neat, like an immobilised snapshot, but it makes me grateful that a flowery style now prevails and that many more flowers are available to us nowadays. Autumn at Ladymead was so much more dull.
Flowery gardening is still not the style of all post-Georgian designers, as each year’s Chelsea Flower Show reveals. However, it is the style which almost all gardeners want, and in a newly prolonged autumn its merits are clear. There has been a continuing tumble of colour and form long after the date when frost would formerly curb it. The owners of Ladymead may have liked their formal ground plan, but they had no multicoloured dahlias, no chrysanthemums and certainly nothing as exciting as red, yellow and blue-flowered salvias from South America. These flowers have been making the weeks from mid October to mid November a flowery joy which Georgian England never saw.
For once I have been ahead of the game. Last autumn was also mild and long lived, so after urging you all to treat the weeks until mid November as a major extension of the garden’s year, I went off and bought many more plants to be at their best late in the season. In the spring I doubled up on dahlias and on late-flowering bulbs. In much of the garden I bedded out twice, after snapping up cut-price summer bedding which had failed to sell in garden centres by late July. I held it back by deadheading it and potting it up, pink and white marguerites, unstoppable bacopas in pink and white and even a second round of petunias with dark violet blue flowers. As soon as the first summer bedding started to falter, I pulled out the fading bits of it and replaced it with this second wave. It has been looking amazingly colourful on into November. Maybe 2017 will chasten us with a sharp frost in early October, but my hunch is that a pattern of autumn mildness is now set fair for more years than not. If so, all the basic gardening books are out of date. Annuals can be bedded in two successive waves, not one which is ripped out in early October as if its usefulness is over.
If I took over the formal rectangles of Ladymead’s garden, here are some of the bright new winners I would put in it. All the so-called Kaffir lilies, the schizostylis family, would give unmissable value. In the 1990s I was still being told by specialists that they needed damp conditions, but I find no such thing. The leaves may be paler in my dry soil but I cannot think the flowers would be more prolific on their stems about 18in long. Varieties have proliferated in pink, white and red, but I stand by the scarlets as the best value, especially Red Dragon, a great flowerer. They grow into wide matted clumps which can be split very easily after five weeks of flower in, say, a city front garden.
We are lucky, too, to have multicoloured salvias nowadays. In big pots the yellows and blues have gone on flowering but in open ground my winner is Salvia involucrata. It has survived every winter in the past 20 and has had a starry year in this idyllic autumn. It makes a strong woody clump of roots and sends up stems to almost 4ft, each of which has a magenta pink head of flower, held horizontally as if it is being thrust out at the viewer. I have multiplied it as a feature at intervals down two borders and recommend it highly. The flowers are strongly coloured but somehow, nothing clashes badly with it at the end of the season when all flowers are welcome and colour planning is superfluous.
With the salvias come the many shades of blue now available in the family of aconitums. None of them was around in the 18th century, but their range from pale to dark blue is an excellent late foil for the vivid pinks. In front of them, the latest-flowering of the healthy Michaelmas daisies reinforces the blues, the unstoppable old Aster King George. I like to see it beside shocking pink Nerines, the so-called Guernsey lilies, which flower on 2ft-high bare stems. Like schizostylis, they have come from South Africa and would have given a Georgian garden a jolt in late autumn. They survive and increase for years, especially at the foot of a south wall.
Good though they are, they cannot beat chrysanths and dahlias. By chrysanths I mean the hardy varieties which are still under-appreciated though they are the best source of cut flowers and colours in the new long autumn. Yellow incurving Cornetto is almost as good as the classic beauties from Japan, but unlike them it does not need a greenhouse’s protection. All the Allouise series and the lovely pink Emperor of China have been in top form. Though classed as fully hardy, these fine chrysanths are safer with a layer of leaf mould and debris on top of their roots after the top growth is cut down.
There has never been such a year for those strangers to the 1730s, dahlias. They have celebrated by flowering far into November for anyone who has kept on deadheading them. Dahlias with names like Cameo or White Knight or the wonderfully big deep red Kenora Macop have been fantastic. The recent show on art and the garden at London’s Royal Academy reminded us that French Impressionist artists painted excellent dahlias and chrysanths in their autumn gardens. Modernising the Georgians, I would gladly cross Ladymead’s garden with Impressionist dahlias which it never knew. Gardens are not a static subject and the more we discover, the more we jazz them up.
Photograph: Victoria Art Gallery, Bath and North East Somerset Council; Bridgeman Images