Robert Kennett Garden Designer

Garden design and landscaping from RHS Gold medal winner
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Autumn’s fiery colours stir the spirit

Autumn’s fiery colours stir the spirit

“Garden writing is often very tame, a real waste when you think how opinionated, inquisitive, irreverent and lascivious gardeners themselves tend to be. Nobody talks much about the muscular limbs, dark, swollen buds, strip-tease trees and unholy beauty that have made us all slaves of the Goddess Flora.” Ketzel Levine, American gardening journalist

I suppose there are really two camps in the gardening world.

There are those who drool over the disciplined drills of a vegetable bed and marvel at the magnificence of a giant pumpkin. Then there are the romantics for whom the garden is a painting that sighs on their skin and delights the senses like a dream.

Though I have a strong primitive urge to grow my own food, I know as the seasons move nature in its perpetual cycle it is my spirit that feels most replenished.

October in particular is a seasonal shift that not be more fuelled with passion. Who does not feel stirred by the volcanic eruption of fiery colours on plants such as Liquidambar styraciflua, Acer japonica, Panicum virgatum and Euonymus alatus (‘Burning Bush’)?  A fresh, invigorating breeze signals a shift from the social expansionism of summer into the family-close, friendly familiarity of autumn. It is a time when the dusty colours of late sedums and fading Japanese anemones mingle with the brown pom-pom seed heads of Heleniums and Phlomis (nice structure in winter), the delicate wireframe of Verbena bonariensis and the ghostly vertical stems of Perovskia.

Thrown into nature’s resting palette (a welcome break from the frantic summer cavalcade) are the ornamental grasses, a great low maintenance addition to any garden providing movement, delicate foliage, winter seeds as food for wildlife and some of the most heart-warming autumn colours. If you can’t bear the strong plumes of the more oriental varieties such as Miscanthus then think native.

Molinia caerulea (purple moor grass) is found throughout Britain on healthland, bogs and moorland. Unlike Miscanthus, whose performance can be very weather-dependant, the native Molinia flowers consistently throughout the summer from July onwards.  One of the finest cultivated varieties to my mind is Molinia Transparent. Although it can reach five feet tall, the upright flower stems remain bolt upright without support and sway gently in the breeze, and its seedheads are delicate and refined. It’s great in a naturalistic planting with herbaceous perennials, or in groups in a more contemporary setting. Planted in lines it can make a lovely subtle screen and could replace a heavy hedge, if you don’t mind the temporary exposure when it’s cut back in spring.

With even finer flowers and dazzling winter foliage colour is Panicum virgatum, a switchgrass found on prairies from Canada to Central America. Panicum virgatum Shenandoah has airy pink tinged panicles in summer but is perhaps best known for the blood red tips to its leaves in winter, best viewed from the opposite side of low piercing winter sunlight.

October heralds some wonderful colours and it seems a great shame to gild the lily with winter bedding. Leave nature to rest and admire it at its most poetic.