Annual surprises in the October border



I’ll bet you clever gardeners realised this long before I did: a few annuals spangled across an autumn border can be terribly effective.

This is the first year I’ve really seen this in action. The orange daisy above is calendula “flashback mixed”, and elsewhere I have morning glory looking stunning and deeply purple every morning. Alongside the more sturdy perennials, like the Aster Frikartii Monch in the background above, the annuals make a great picture this time of year.

I showed my daughter the morning glory through the window before school today, and asked her what she thought it looked like. She looked at the heart-shaped leaves and the purple flowers and said, “it looks like the trumpets are blowing love kisses.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

What’s in your autumn border looking gorgeous?


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


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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?


Briefly California


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Until now, I’d never bothered with seed sowing in summer. The seedling fatigue of spring usually leaves me uninterested in repeating the whole affair during July and August. But two things have come together this year to change all that: my sharper awareness of the way the garden grows like mad in July; and the Eatin’ Project, where my early success in growing edibles has inspired me to try to keep the crops coming.

I listen to the folksy “Gardening with Tim and Joe” from BBC Radio Leeds, and a few weeks ago gardener Joe Maiden was encouraging everybody to sow more French beans and carrots right away to get strong young plants developing. I did, and they have. This evening I planted out some of the young dwarf French beans “Masterpiece” (thanks for the recommendation, Marc Diacono): their little root balls were full and raring to go.

The growth in all corners is rampant. I was stunned to see a fab root system on a bit of pelargonium that I’d knocked off the plant and had thrown into a cup of water. I planted it up and it’s flowering now – the whole process took just a few weeks. So I tried the same with a bit of Aster Frikartii Monch I’d yanked off the plant and sure enough, voila, roots. Today I’ve also sown dianthus seed; cuttings would be easier, but it’s my mother’s favourite flower, and these fell from the pinks I’d cut for her bedside when she was staying with me earlier this month. It is always hard to see her go back to Boston, and I couldn’t throw these seeds away when I was clearing up her bedside table this morning. If I can get some of these to germinate, that’ll mean something to me. Click for larger image

This is the first year I’ve tried to exploit these few weeks when Edinburgh is briefly California: long bright days, warm soil, and easy abundance everywhere in the garden. In past years I’d noticed how the borders went ballistic during July, but I’d never used it. July is a wave I’m riding this year instead of a flood that’s swamping my borders, and I like it. This is the first time that I’ve slashed my aquilegias to the ground in June, and I wasn’t afraid to do it, knowing it would give everything else more space during July and August.

It’s been a revelation to sow and nurture seedlings in summer: nothing like the slog of sowing in the dim days of spring in Scotland, where equal parts willpower and liquid seaweed are the only thing that keep the seedlings going.

Do you ever feel that your garden is a mute entity whose signs and moods you spend years studying? I think I’m starting to speak her language.


November needs the right plant, right place, right time


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.