It is a sign of the times that the Great Autumn Show, which has been staged by the Royal Horticultural Society in London in mid-September since God was a small boy, is moving to a date in early October from next year. Autumn starts later and lasts longer; that’s official. And this at a time when the modern predisposition to restlessness — part affliction, part asset — demands that we no longer treat the autumn, when it does come, as a plodding, ‘putting the garden to bed’ time of year but as a vibrant season, full of colour and life.
To underline this, a seminar was held at this September’s RHS London show at which a variety of plant luminaries spoke on the subject ‘The Forgotten Season’, and demonstrated decisively that autumn is no such thing. For some years, nurserymen have been searching hard for flowers, most particularly perennials and bulbs, which will give colour to our gardens until the frosts. The age of the mildewed, starved Michaelmas daisy is over; it has given way to more disease-resistant asters, as well as hardy chrysanthemums, nerines, sternbergias, and warm-season grasses, not to mention tender and sub-tropical plants, such as cannas and dahlias, which in favoured areas can be left outside in many places to continue flowering even into November.
Changing weather patterns have helped, sure, but this change of mood has as much to do with the preoccupations and expertise of specialist nurserymen and prominent gardeners, together with increased general prosperity. When I was a child in the 1960s, flower gardens remained the same from year to year, changing only occasionally when a shrub unexpectedly died and left a gap that had to be filled. Now we rip out and replace frequently, stopping only to be thankful that it is easier and cheaper than ripping out and replacing the kitchen. Although this year has not been a good one for nurseries, as with most retail operations, the market is still far larger than it was 40 years ago.
The modern global nature of horticulture, encouraged by the internet, has also had an influence. Even if you, as a nurseryman, haven’t heard of an attractive new grass, someone in Washington State will tell you about it, given half a chance. And, for both good and ill, there are scarcely any barriers to importing plants from Europe these days.
A number of genera have particularly benefited from the adventurous mood and the ease with which Continental plants can be imported. The family Poaceae (Gramineae) springs instantly to mind. The effect that the introduction of so many grasses into catalogues has had on the look of our autumn gardens cannot easily be overstated. Impervious to rough winds, grasses animate the garden, capable of movement even on still days, and often display good autumn leaf and flower colour as well. My absolute favourite plant in the garden at the moment — yes, even more favourite than the sublime Aster frikartii ‘Mönch’ — is Pennisetum ‘Tall Tails’, which has arching stems topped with downy, graceful plumes of pink-tinged, white flowers, above a dark-green grassy clump. Other autumn grasses to covet are forms of Molinea caerulea (the purple moor grass) and Panicum virgatum as well as the newer varieties of Miscanthus sinensis (eulalia grass). These have been bred in Germany, and flower earlier in the season, that is, from midsummer onwards into autumn, which adds substantially to their appeal and popularity.
Once despised because of its indiscriminate use in bedding schemes, the genus Salvia is now almost everywhere praised for the variety of flower colour to be found among the species. Contemporary British plant hunters (about which more next month) have added some wonderful autumn-flowering perennials to the lexicon, especially species from Central and South America. Among the best late-summer and autumn flowerers, in my opinion, are Salvia guaranitica in all its forms, but especially ‘Blue Enigma’ and ‘Black and Blue’, together with S. uliginosa and Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’.
‘Autumn colour’ once meant leaf and berry colour, principally. Now flowers and seedheads have been added to the mix. There are two main palettes of colour: purple, pink, mauve and blue, and golden, bronze, fiery orange and scarlet. It is possible to mix them as, for example, by contrasting mauve Verbena bonariensis with golden-yellow Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ or the bronze Chrysanthemum ‘Cottage Apricot’, or to segregate them into two camps, blending Chrysanthemum ‘Nantyderry Sunshine’ and ‘Bronze Elegance’ with Helenium ‘Butterpat’ and ‘Moerheim Beauty’, or Aster ‘Little Carlow’ with Nerine bowdenii and any one of many penstemons. This autumn — a calm, mild, quiet one, with enough rain and enough sun — has encouraged them all to hang on to their flowers remarkably well. The result has been genuinely exhilarating, yet looks satisfactorily effortless. Last Saturday, my husband, home after a more than usually taxing week of work, looked out of the window and mused, ‘Balm for the soul.’ I think so.