Why autumn is about embracing fleeting beauty in the garden

Image of Robin Lane Fox

The British autumnal “fall” has a few fans, but not enough. I am one of them and I cannot say the year so far has helped my case. Autumn colouring needs clear days, crisp chill nights and preferably plenty of sunshine. You see why the pro-fall lobby is struggling.

One poor start to the season is not going to put me off. Here is my logic. Gardeners are forever wanting the flowering plants that will last longest, “extend the season” and keep on going. I gave a talk last week to a keen local gardening club and tried to interest the depths of Gloucestershire in the beauty of the transitory. I even read them a bit of translated Japanese by the incomparable Lady Murasaki, an appreciator of fleeting beauty who wrote about 1,000 years ago. I might as well have read them Dante on a lower pit of Hell. Everybody present wanted to know which old roses really will flower twice, which agapanthus last longest and which delphiniums flower again in autumn.

I knew some, not all, of the answers, so I asked how many of them planned to keep their gardens looking good by carefully choosing autumn colour. One farmer had planted lots of mountain ash but only because it qualified him for a “native” tree-planting grant. One hardened lady said she planned, certainly, but her plan was to go to Italy in late October and take the edge off the sad English “leaf-drop”. Only one person admitted to choosing the excellent climbing hydrangea, the self-clinging Hydrangea petiolaris, because its leaves turn such a superb shade of yellow in autumn. For everyone else, “extending the season” meant flowers.

Please look around you in the intervals between the next month’s rains and think again. Wisterias turn such an excellent shade of yellow though we value them only for their flowers. Many border peonies go a good reddish colour before their leaves fall. Hostas go a bold yellow and so do some of the day lilies. If you happen to grow astilbes, they, too, have their bright autumn moment, though one of our major nurseries comments only that their “old flower plumes give winter interest”. I have yet to see it.

Of course the real bright spots are trees and big shrubs. I am an apostle of two families in particular, even if neither is right for a prize position near the house. Rhus typhina and shrubby Euonymus are extremely easy to grow but gardeners seem to think only of shrub roses when they reach the point where the mown grass runs out and rough, perhaps bulb-carpeted turf, begins. My two give late autumn a much brighter finale.

The rhus is extremely easy to accommodate, easier than gardeners, who know it only as a spreading, fiery-orange tree, realise. It colours even more brightly if it is cut back hard each spring. Hard-pruned rhus, kept to about 5ft, can be grouped in threes like smallish shrubs. The autumn effect is so dramatic. Rhus typhina is the shrubby tree that has long pinnate leaves and that usually branches low down on its trunk. Its supposedly popular name is “Stag’s Horn Sumach”, referring to the velvety brown coating on its branches that resembles the velvet on a young stag’s antlers. I have yet to hear anyone call it in full by this English name. The better news is that it is readily available in all major garden centres and can be bought on your next visit. The variety called Rhus typhina Laciniata or Dissecta is even brighter in autumn than the ordinary typhina, so buy it if you see it. Hard pruning means you can fit it in anywhere in long grass, keeping a circle of earth clear round its trunk. It grows very well in this way on slopes and banks and puts up with dry soil. It would even enliven a dry bank in Tuscany.

Euonymus alatus

Euonymus is the family of the spindle tree, an English “native”. Two brilliant colourers are widely available, Euonymus alatus and Euonymus europaeus Red Cascade. They are certainly not shrubs to be pruned hard each spring. Alatus is slow-growing and rather rigid in shape. For most of the year you will forget it but, on most soils, even chalky ones, it will dazzle you in autumn. The RHS Plantfinder lists several named forms that are well worth the hunt. “Chicago Fire” is apparently now called “Timber Creek” but is still a very vivid colourer. I have yet to try the one called “Little Moses”. All look stunning on the edge of a small wood or near a garden’s boundary hedge. If their leaves were flowers, gardeners would be rushing to buy them. At a distance the colour is what matters, not whether it comes from a petal or a leaf.

Twenty-five years ago I practised what I now preach. Starting with a blank canvas, I majored on well-chosen sorbusses and some flowering, fruiting and colouring forms of malus. After a dry start in the 1990s they have come good year after year. The main sorbusses are Sorbus hupehensis, the one with grey-green leaves to a height of about 20ft. Each autumn I look on mine with pride, trees that colour a superb shade of pinkish-red and show a fine crop of fruits. Since I planted mine, Sorbus hupehensis Pink Pagoda has been separated out and widely marketed. It is an excellent choice, a tree that has at least a week of splendour in November after looking good all summer too. Birds pillage its pinkish fruits when they light on them but, meanwhile, the trees are one of my year’s high points. “Pink Pagoda” has now been merged with “November Pink” but this other name caught its charm well. I rate the upright Sorbus americana, the smaller Sorbus vilmorinii and this pink wonder of a hupehensis as supreme multiseason trees for modestly sized gardens. In a long narrow town garden vilmorinii is the best bet as it is more compact.

Sorbus hupehensis Pink Pagoda

As for the many malusses, I bless their many seasons. They flower so well in May. They fruit in autumn and they turn excellent colours at the same time.

My main pick is still a winner, Malus Evereste, because its leaves stay a specially clear green without any browning or curling or greying throughout the summer. It then fruits prolifically, bearing hundreds of small orange-red apples and turns a fine orange-yellow at the same time. It is not as brilliant as the best sorts of maple but it grows on dry soil and does not mind lime. I have no hope of growing a Japanese maple but thanks to this malus and its relations I am not giving up on autumn. Temper your planting to your soil, rather than lamenting that the soil is alkaline and that maples therefore hate it.

Above all, go out and look. Arboretums show you what will colour best and usually you can then find it in the trade. The range of plants in British nurseries remains stunning, despite fuel prices, a weakened currency and two awful shopping seasons in 2011 and 2012. With their help you can add an extra season to your garden without worrying only about the last sodden roses on the climbers. I have not even mentioned ginkgo trees, either, the global winners in mid-November in such a shade of bright yellow. From Seoul to New York, the best on the street tree ginkgos is yet to come.

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