I need late autumn interest in the garden — dahlias need not apply

September14

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Novemberish gales are blowing the September garden sideways and making me think prematurely about mulching, clearing and cozying in. The open wire grille I put down to keep leaves out of the pond has stopped airborne bits of recycling from pummeling the tiny puddle of water and its newts. I’d never managed to cover the pond before this year. Maybe last winter’s swift, shocking start in November is what has me bracing for the end of the gardening year, and a bit too soon. The apples and pears are bearing, most leaves are stuck fast to branches and the late asters haven’t even shown yet.

Do you do dahlias? I’ve never grown one I liked — they are martyrs to earwigs, which means I’m not tempted even by the lighter, arier single types. The more traditional dahlias, great blobs of colour, are repellent to me. The autumn roses I grow are fat and colourful, too, but all are balanced with large areas of their own green foliage. The dahlias are unrestrained, unremitting splotches of red, pink and purple blowing a technicolor raspberry from the border — you can keep them.
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An autumn combination I prefer is growing now in the hall border, which I see foreshortened from my office window, so far-apart plants appear side-by-side. It includes:

  • heuchera palace purple
  • aster frikartii Monch
  • liatris spicata
  • schizostylis coccinea major
  • Lobelia fan blue
  • Rose de Rescht
  • Rose Zephyrine Drouhin
  • Rudbeckia Goldsturm
  • Lonicera (honeysuckle) berries
  • alchemilla conjuncta
  • persicaria

I’ve tried so hard to get autumn colour here, especially late autumn colour, for my daughter’s birthday at the end of October. That means I really need November colour, and that’s hard.
Click for larger imageMaybe this is the real reason I’m looking ahead to November: I’m keen to know if this year’s show will be any better, now that the persicaria and chrysanthemums will add to the later asters (Alma Potschke) and Schizostylis. Claire last year suggested some of the hardy fuchsias as good performers into November, and I’m propagating some from cuttings now.

Sorry if it’s tedious for you, but I keep coming back to this question of November interest (see here and here) because I can’t get it right. My two children are November and February birthdays, and a garden show at those times of year is Advanced Gardening. I have this vision of a blanket of snowdrops beneath black-ball Rudbeckia seed heads from the previous autumn. Do you think this will work? It would be some achievement to have a good autumn-into-winter show that celebrates both kids. But much of the garden gets too little sun for the Rudbeckias, and even those that thrive would need to withstand Scottish wind, snow and thaw.

I’m not sure if this black and white plan will work (I’m trying to propagate the Rudbeckia just in case), or if my kids will even know what I was trying to do for them.

Although plantings that are “for” others aren’t really what we gardeners do, is it? The planting is for us, to echo our feelings or memories of those who mean so much, we need them in the garden with us.

Who have you planted for? What did you plant?

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I buried my dog in the garden today

July6

Click for larger imageI’ve been keeping one of my New Year’s gardening resolutions – the one about sitting down when I’m outside, instead of just doing frantic job after job. I expect I’ll sit a bit more now that my beautiful little dog, who died this morning, is buried in the garden.

My mother believes that heaven is a garden. What do you think? I think it’s true for Lizzy, our lovely 16-year-old terrier cross with the comically outsized front paws. She was usually with me as I worked outside, and the other day she lazed in the sun and watched me tackling my new project.

It’s a seating area; I was digging out a proper path towards a bench we never use, behind a sick apple tree. I’d removed the tree and piled up the soil by the bench; I was thinking of the Gardener’s World episode about Monet’s Giverny garden — it packs in so many flowers because the borders are mounded in the middle.

When I’d placed all the plants, I sat down and watched Lizzy watching me, and I tried to take a vivid mental picture. I will especially remember your wonky, silky ears, I thought — the right one always stood up, the left one folded back.

You need a plan if you’re burying your dog in the garden

If you know your dog may be nearing the end, and you want the burial to be in your garden, don’t put off planning how to do it. Lizzy’s health had been so bad that I had a bit of time to think. In fact the night before last I didn’t sleep at all. Between fits of crying – wailing, really – I made myself plan.

Click for larger imageThe place for her grave was obvious – I’d dug down very deep to take out the apple tree, and the spade would go in easily there. I would beg the vet to do a house call. How could I bring her to the clinic? She hated it, and on this trip, I couldn’t lie and tell her she’d nothing to worry about. I’d wrap her in my old silk robe; it smells of me, she’d like that. And I could use the clean wicker mat I’d just seen in the closet. More crying, more sleeplessness. At 3:30 I got up, picked up Lizzy from the kitchen and brought her to the couch. She settled into the crook of my legs and we both fell asleep.

This morning, when my husband and I saw how much Lizzy was bleeding and her back legs dragged behind her worse than ever, we rang the vet, who agreed to come to us. I gave Lizzy chicken for breakfast, and a long, luxurious brushing in the garden. Thank God I didn’t need to think, just do the plan: cuddles, robe, mat, grave. The rain was coming on, so I dug out the first bit; my husband would finish it after he’d dropped off the kids. He returned as the vet arrived.

I sat on the ground with my robe over my legs, cradling Lizzy and speaking to her. She never liked to see me cry, so I wasn’t tempted to – I wanted her to experience only my strong, positive voice and the smell of me as I stroked her. After the first injection, a sedative, her sleepy head got heavier on my arm and she began to snore. After the second injection, she was gone in less than a minute. I kept stroking her and kissed her head; my husband finished the digging.

We wrapped her gently and laid her down.

My plants to remember Lizzy – including lamb’s ears, of course

This evening I spoke to Lizzy as I put in the Click for larger imageplants: stachys byzantium, silky like her lovely ears, are by the arm of the bench. The rest is a collection of pink to catch the autumn sun: Aster Alma Potschke and Cosmos Bipinnatus Candy Stripe. A few evergreens are around the triangle edges of the mound: Festuca glauca at the tip and helleborus foetidus along the sides.

When I first found Lizzy in the foyer of my apartment building, she had a plastic bag around her waist with a note: “Someone take this dog, as I can’t afford to keep it.” That’s when I was 25. I’m 41 now. It’s a lifetime, isn’t it? For Lizzy, it was a lovely lifetime; and the rest is garden.

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November needs the right plant, right place, right time

October31

Click for larger imageIt’s just over three years since I planted a special part of the garden to celebrate our daughter’s birthday. It’s a border I planned the summer I was expecting her and every manic nesting instinct went into it: I combed through books for the perfect autumn performers. When we came home from the hospital I remember standing with her at the window and telling her what I’d done. I love to see these schizostylis and asters shine every October — pity the penstemons fell at the first hurdle that same winter, but all the other plants I put down for her are as strong and lively as she is.

What I now see, though, is that only the schizostylis and the aster Alma Potschke are true October performers. My aster Frikartii Monch starts to flag by Halloween, just as her birthday arrives. To make this border really sing, I need November stars, but what? I tried, but I can’t love grasses — they always put me in mind of an unmown roundabout.

November is such a strange month. Although it’s fading the garden holds onto some of the brightness of late summer and isn’t ready to say goodbye to all that, and I think that’s its melancholy. Because November is neither here nor there, some flowers to me feel wrong in the garden, even if they look good. I’ve been amazed at how strongly the repeating roses flower, even into November. But — and this is from a rose addict — the roses look wrong now. They arrive a bit too late and a bit too overdressed, just as the party’s winding down and everyone else is drifting off.

So what’s left, that feels right? Gladiolus callianthus? Dahlias? Autumn crocus? Or maybe I should go pro-berry and look at callicarpa? I could look at the sedums. The pinky orange flowers on some of the cultivars are a bit insipid, but the dusky purple tones many of them fade to are lovely, and really do belong here in deepest autumn. More than probably any other month, the November garden needs the right plant, in the right place at the right time. I’m still looking.

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