Thursday, 30 October 2014

Autumn Fire

Now that autumn has well and truly arrived, and if the recent storms have left anything worth seeing, we can bask in all the glory of the changing colours in the garden.  It may be short lived, but it is all the sweeter for that.  And the warm, sunny weather in September is giving us quite a spectacle this year as, like in Hollywood, the hero goes out with one final glorious act.

Given their scale, our deciduous trees and shrubs are the most obvious, but the finery of autumn colouring can be found on most plants that die down for the winter as the lifeblood seeps back into the plant, revealing a range of hues in orange, yellow and red.

I think that it adds a dynamism and energy to any garden if you can plant to track and experience the changes in the season. As the points of interest change as you pass through spring, summer, autumn and winter, you can almost feel time moving and really tune in to the rhythms of the year. It also means that there is always something to look forward to, and that sense of anticipation can really intensify the pleasures enjoyed from having a garden.

The other thing to bear in mind is that autumn interest doesn't just come from leaf colour. As we move through autumn and the leaves start to drop, the berries of many plants start to become more noticeable. The hedgerows around me were alight with hawthorn that had turned a bright yellow which was setting off, brilliantly, the glossy red haws. The same is true of shrub roses with their fat red hips, euonymus with their bright red fruits and with crab apples, now ripe for picking.

No matter the size of a garden, there is always something that can be included to give interest for this time of the year. If you have space, large trees such as birch, beech, rowan, field maple and liquidamber are some of the most majestic for autumn colour. However, even if your garden won't accommodate such large trees, some of them still can be incorporated in the form of hedges.

Some of my favourites within the 'shrub' layer include euonymus, acers, witch-hazel's and the katsura tree, Cercidiphylum japonicum. Euonymus alatus turns a deep scarlet in autumn, and colouring to pale yellow and orange are the related Euonymus planipes and Euonymus europaeus, both of which also have fleshy red fruits that spilt open on the branch to reveal their bright orange seeds. The many species and varieties of ornamental acers offer an almost endless spectrum of autumn colour as do the numerous varieties of witch-hazel, which have the added benefit of giving a splash of much needed colour in winter. Cercidiphylum japonicum, on a still autumn day, gives off a scent of burnt sugar as the leaves fall, introducing another dimension to the garden at this time of year.

Of the herbaceous perennials occupying the ground level planting, one of the most spectacular has to be Euphorbia griffithii 'Fireglow' that turns a fiery red and orange in autumn. However many grasses such as molinia and miscanthus turn varying shades of orange, red and yellow and look magnificent with the soft autumn sun shining through the stems and seed heads. The same is true of Solidago 'Golden Mosa', where the bright yellow flowers fade to cream feathers atop stems of yellow and orange. Right down at ground level, many varieties of bergenia turn scarlet red as the temperatures drop and just now my bugle, Ajuga reptans is fading from dark bronze to bright red.

With clever selection and positioning these plants can be used to provide a number of autumnal focal points, either enticing you to go outside to see them close up on a bright crisp morning or merely to enjoy them from afar from the warmth of the house as they brighten a dull, overcast and 'dreich' day.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Harrogate Dahlia Show

A couple of weeks ago, I tagged along with my friend as he made the long journey down from Fife, in Scotland, to enter some of his dahlias in the National Dahlia Society competition at the Harrogate Flower Show in Yorkshire.

He had been up since six that morning cutting in excess of 100 blooms that he required to take with him for the 'classes' he was entering. As he is looking for blooms that have to be at their best in 24 hours time, selecting them requires a great deal of experience, and a keen eye.

I was picked up en route, and almost struggled to find space to sit, as his estate car was full to overflowing with dahlias, all tied into various Heath Robinson containers made both to stop the flowers from wilting and the stems from snapping on the journey south. These 'contraptions' ranged from plastic buckets filled with scrunched up chicken wire and with garden canes wired to the bucket, to old milk bottle crates with cut off drinks bottles in the compartments and yet more canes. And, arriving at the show, it was obvious that everyone had their own particular way of transporting their flowers in tip top condition as there were as many different types of frames as there were competitors.

In the show there were 107 classes ranging from miniature pompoms through to 'the giants', large pompoms and large spiky cactus cultivars, and any combination of flowers in between. My friend had entered three main classes, with each class requiring three vases of either five or six blooms. We spent seven hours 'staging' the entries, finishing just after midnight and, I guess, it wouldn't have been right to rush this final stage, after all the time and care that had been put into getting here in the first place - the hours spent taking more than 700 cuttings, the potting on and the planting out, the weeding and feeding, the watering, the staking, the dis-budding. The level of commitment and attention to detail is incredible!

The Harrogate show attracts entries from all over the UK, and alongside the Wisley Flower Show, it is the largest dahlia show in the country. When we arrived, the hall was already busy with competitors and as the evening progressed there was a steady stream of dahlias being unloaded from cars, vans and trucks. This would continue right through the night until the hall had to be emptied at 7.30am to allow the judging to start.

Later that morning, as we returned to a hall abuzz with excitement and chatter we made our way to the classes that we had entered. A first place and two seconds. 'Well chuffed!' was my friend's reaction. However, there was no real time to revel in the success. After a couple of hours taking in the rest of the show, we were then back off up the road to Fife to cut and stage more flowers for a local show in Perth that evening. It's a fine line between dedication and madness!

Although it was a long, tiring couple of days, it was a delight to be in the midst of such high levels of expertise and perfection. I had a feeling that, although we have witnessed such a strong resurgence in the grow your own movement for fruit and vegetables, the traditions and practices of growing flowers for showing were slowly dying out . However on the evidence of the Harrogate Show, this part of our gardening heritage is in rude health.

It was also a joy to just wander around the hall and experience the panoply of colours, sizes and forms of this wonderful plant. The vibrancy of colour for this time of the year makes it a worthwhile addition to any garden, adding strong, rich colours as other perennials are starting to fade and look a little washed out, and they will carrying on doing this right until the first heavy frosts of the year.

They do require some extra work, as most will have to be lifted and stored for the winter, but, whether you are growing them as a decorative plant for the garden or the house table or indeed for showing, that effort pays itself off in spades.