Last Monday we awoke to a pristine frost, the first of the year. It lay heavy, sweeping up to tickle the grassy banks, but sparing the giant dahlia in the shelter of the barn. For now. I was up early, the moon still in the sky, to check on the pelargoniums which I’d moved in under cover of the open barn the night before. It was the beginning of the season’s change. From now on the garden will drop back and recede into winter.
In the seven years we have been here this shift has happened almost exactly to the week, but with every year there has been increasingly more to draw from in the garden. Despite the freeze that saw tender nasturtiums wilted and the dahlias in the open blackened, we are far from done in terms of interest. The grasses have come into their own as the colour of flower fades elsewhere. Panicum virgatum ‘Rehbraun’ is of particular note, but it has taken this long to reach its current perfection. The last few weeks have seen this late season grass at its best, the smoky panicles forming a mist amongst the perennials. As the weather has cooled, the foliage has now coloured too, a deep mahogany red.
Picked in a bunch the flowers of the panicum act much as they do in the planting to veil their companions and create graphic sweeps with their flamed foliage. Almost anything works in this moody suspension of colour and here we have it with the very last of the Rudbeckia ‘Prairie Glow’. This short-lived perennial is easily raised from seed. Indeed, the plants that I have in the picking beds are variable for exactly this reason. A mix of embers and charcoal, black over red or orange, with some more fiery than others. Desite the strength of colour the impression is light for the flowers are small and held freely with room between each other. In my experience the freer draining the ground in the winter, the more likely you are to keep it. A pinch of seed, taken now and sown early under cover, will ensure that you have it next year.
The Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’ has a second season of flower once the weather starts cooling, its honeyed perfume noticeable quite some distance away. I have it planted by the path so that it is easy to inhale a big lungful. This modest, woody perennial is usually at its best in early spring, flowering prodigiously in March and April and then on into early summer after a warm winter. I put this second push down to youthful exuberance and do not expect the plants to keep this up for more than three years. In the third summer I will take cuttings and replace them in new positions for they are sure to exhaust themselves. Their presence is always light and delightful, the pale yellow pea flowers darker on the lip than the keel. If you can find them a sunny free-draining position, they are easy.
Persicaria virginiana var. filiformis is one of my favourite late season perennials. I grew them first in the Peckham garden, where they seeded freely into the shale I used for the paths. Their presence is light early in the year and, like the panicums, they take some time to come into their own in the latter half of the growing season. Grow them in a little shade or on the cool side of a building for the emerald green in the leaf to set off the maroon chevron of warpaint to best advantage. Out in the sun, the green pales and can look insipid and, as the greater part of the joy in this plant is the foliage, it is worth finding it just the right place. That said, the spires of tiny flowers are worth the wait, forming a pink haze that is hard to pin down at first, but bright and easily detectable once you find the miniature flowers scaling their wiry spires.
Our Malus transitoria coloured a bright, buttery yellow this year, before the leaves were stripped by gales to leave the berries hanging delicately in their thousands. The tiny amber beads, which darken to a reddish tan as they ripen, are perfectly bite-sized for the birds and every morning they are full of fluttering life. At this teetering point between the seasons this is a moment worth eking out and savouring. A last flash of life before winter gets its grip and competition for the berries will see them vanish with the last of the flowers.