An autumn garden reshuffle

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It was a good summer for the back garden. I enjoyed sitting out on the terrace in the hot sunshine, gazing in unabashed admiration as various pleasing planting combinations waxed and waned. How could any of the plants yet to come be as good as these tulips and forget-me-nots, I wondered in May, as the gorgeous twisted tulip petals relaxed into their fading farewells. But then the garden (with only a moment’s hesitatation) triumphantly produced geraniums, alliums, icelandic poppies and perennial cornflowers, peonies, foxgloves, delphiniums, roses, catmint, and its annuals (nasturtiums, gypsophila) in a glorious parade of bright, precious colours. Then the season shifted to late summer, and suddenly there were calendula, crocosmia, cosmos, achillea, dahlias, and persicaria, their flame colours now punctuated by a backdrop of green allium and poppy seedheads. Yes, I enjoyed the show very much.

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But come mid-August I noticed a niggling feeling that the garden was entering an early decline. Now that the best of the flowers were fading, there were no longer enough of them to distract me from the garden’s inevitable faults. Areas that lacked interest started appearing. The corner in which a host of white foxgloves and blue delphiniums had proudly stood last month now bore not a single colour or texture of note. It’s too small a garden for large patches of dullness. I went out and bought a Ceratostigma willmottianum for the bare corner, and planted it. Although it’s too small a plant to make much of an impression yet, I am hoping that it will look good this time next year with its gentian-blue flowers and red autumn foliage. But it wasn’t enough; other things were starting to chafe: an ornamental thistle that was smothering a rose, and nearby, the unattractive brown lower leaves of an echinops in plain view from the back door. There were some bearded irises that had failed to perform for the fourth year running, and a young sedum was being drowned by a surprisingly vigorous pineapple sage. (When will I learn to leave more space between plants?)

When I saw a beautiful billowing sedum while visiting Dr Neil’s Garden in Duddingston, it was the nudge I needed. How I wished my sedum looked the same: healthy, vigorous, enthusiastic, and surrounded by wafting perennial grasses. I knew the very spot I wanted to try moving mine to, under the arch where it would catch the full benefit of the summer sun and provide personality to an otherwise lacklustre corner. Of course, moving the sedum meant moving a lot of other things first. That’s half the fun of it.

First to be dug out were some foxgloves to make space for the echinops, which I split into three or four smaller plants. Christopher Lloyd once wrote that an echinops does the same job as an eryngium, and since the latter is more exciting you may as well plant that instead. But I disagree –  echinops is less startling, more subdued and graceful, and grows more upwards than outwards, taking up far less room. Yes, there is the problem of its ugly lower leaves, but if you place it carefully they can be hidden behind the foliage of other plants. In its new position by the wall, mine would be disguised by some geraniums and a peony.

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The ornamental thistle came out too. You could almost hear the rose behind it breathing a sigh of relief. In fact, I breathed a sigh of relief too to see it come out. Now with a few spaces created in the border, I fetched a potted camellia that I’d been wanting to plant out for some time. There is no point in keeping a camellia in a pot unless your soil is alkaline, which mine isn’t. After trying the camellia in various positions and looking at it from all angles, I decided it looked the business in the place left vacant by the echinops.

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I took great delight in digging the bearded irises out. I’ve had one flower (admittedly a spectacular one) from these irises in four years. I reckoned that if the stupid things couldn’t flower in the hottest summer on record, then they’re hopeless cases and need replacing. In their place I planted a hydrangea that my mother had given me. I don’t have many shrubs in the border, and I’m looking forward to the structure that the camellia and this hydrangea bring to the garden.

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Finally to move the sedum. There was a large drumstick primula (Primula denticulata) that had to come out first, which I planted next to my peony ‘Sarah Bernhardt’. The sedum went into its place under the arch, and behind it I placed a little pheasant’s tail grass, Anemanthele lessoniana. Both sedum and grass were gifts from Cathy (Rambling in the Garden) so it seemed appropriate that they should go in beside each other.

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While working, I was able to appreciate the rest of the garden: the cosmos in full bloom, asters and astrantias, nasturtiums, erigeron and dahlias. Autumn days in the garden are some of the most glorious. The whole garden has an atmosphere of quiet and calm, of falling slowly asleep. The birds are still singing, but less frantically than in the spring. The light is more interesting, but of shorter duration. Interesting things are happening to seed heads, to the colour of leaves, even to the colour of flowers.

After my garden ‘reshuffle’ the garden once more became a place I wanted to spend time in, to wander around and enjoy the changing season. No longer was I troubled by those niggles and annoyances. (I should say that naturally there are ongoing niggles as in all gardens; merely less urgent ones.) I look forward to next year, when the fruits of my reshuffle will show themselves in an improved autumn outlook.

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8 thoughts on “An autumn garden reshuffle

  1. It always so satisfying to make the kinds of changes you’ve made. I’m sure your camellia will be happier in the garden rather than in a pot. It might be the tail end of the growing season but your garden still has plenty of interest.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this, Joanna, and you captured the process perfectly – reshuffling is exactly what I have been doing but ‘rehashing’ or ‘revamping’ just didn’t seem the right way to describe it. And the way you say the process started was spot-on, the point at which there weren’t enough good bits to distract from the unsatisfactory ones – well observed! It was interesting finding out what changes you have put into place how hardy is the pineapple sage? The cutting you gave me is now a healthy specimen but I still have it in a pot in the greenhouse

    1. Thank you Cathy – glad you enjoyed it! The pineapple sage survived last winter outdoors completely unscathed. It’s a sheltered spot but it did get to at least -6 at one point out there. It took a long time to reemerge in spring (it wasn’t really showing face until about June, hence why I almost planted your sedum on top of it!) but a month later it was flourishing.

      1. Oh, I think I will plant it outside before the winter then as it is a decent size plant and it will save me watering it over winter!

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