A chill wind is pushing the weather through the valley, tossing the garden and tearing the colour from the trees. This late autumn feeling is distinct for being burned clear into our memory of arriving here exactly eight years ago. We sat on the banks below the house wrapped in blankets on the same chairs that, just the day before, were out on the deck in Peckham, where we had willingly left a well-loved garden behind. The feeling of the new and the excitement of a prospect is still very clear to me and the anniversary has given us cause to ponder all that has happened since. The unloved land, grazed to the bone and up to the very foundations of the buildings, is now softened by growth. We look up the slopes into a little wood – our first planting project that winter, where an empty field gave way to a broken hedge – and down onto a new orchard where the trees are fruiting and casting their own proper shade. It is time marked very tangibly in growth.
Our thoughts that first weekend had not yet formed this place, but today it is better and more giving than I could ever have imagined. The reward comes from both the continuity and the luxury of being able to build something for yourself and be witness to its evolution. Every month we have been here has revealed something new, but the garden has amplified our connection with the land and the seasons. It is just a year since we completed the planting of the garden proper, but it is safe to say that every week has been provided for and, on this last full day of British summertime, the garden is still a place we can be where the season doesn’t quite have the upper hand.
This last push of flower before the frost takes hold is important, for soon all will be gone. Though I do not miss it then, for flower soon starts to feel out of place amongst the skeletons. Some of these late performers, the asters for instance, have been biding their time as they have built up their resources, and the place they have occupied until now is a necessary one that I have learned to see as a foundation for autumn rather than space wasted for earlier performers. The backdrop they provide in foliage to earlier-flowering perennials has offered stability and constancy. The filigree foliage of the October-blooming Aster turbinellus, for instance, is as delicate as netting and the flower equally beautiful and finely-rayed. Rising to almost a metre in height, but leaning as it comes to flower, it remains one of my favourites for its bright, clean colour and its thoroughly reliable, clump-forming habit.
I am not sure yet whether I can say the same for Aster ‘Ezo Murasaki’, which is bulking up steadily. Asters that stay put in a planting are important, but so far I have forgiven this Japanese native its lust for life. It has licorice-dark stems and serrated foliage which you might at first think belonged to a chrysanthemum and that colours with red tints as the temperature falls. It comes into flower in late September at about 60cm, and is at its zenith now. The flowers are single, with bright, violet centres, darkening towards the tips and ageing to royal purple, giving the mass of flower a variance in depth. They also have a bright gold eye which prevents them from feeling sombre. I have them paired with the muted tones of Teucrium hircanicum ‘Paradise Delight’ in an undercurrent beneath Molinia caerulea ssp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’. We will see in time if they creep too readily. Three years of growing them has shown me that they need to be watched, but not worried over like some asters.
Close by, and doing better than I had imagined on our open slopes because our soil is retentive, is Tricyrtis formosana ‘Dark Beauty’. I have them grouped under a young crab apple, which will provide them the dappling they need and look better for in time. ‘Dark Beauty’ is a named form that retains the spotting that gives them their common name, the Toad Lily, and I prefer these to the plain selections without spots. However, it isn’t as dark as I had imagined and I’m on the look-out for a deeper-coloured selection having seen and remembered them from my time at The Edinburgh Botanic Garden. If they can be bettered, I will replace them. That said, for the past six weeks they have been a delight and will continue until they are felled by frost.
Also worth the wait if you can find it a place where the foliage doesn’t burn, are the actaea. A tribe of late-flowering perennials that occur both in Japan and North America, they prefer moisture or retentive soil and cool for their foliage. Where I have used them in the parterre at Lowther Castle, they thrive in the open with the wetter climate of Cumbria, whereas down here in the south, they prefer some shade. Although they are a long-standing favourite, they have often frustrated me in my own gardens over the years. They hated me in Peckham, where my ground was too dry and their leaves burned to a crisp. The dark, ferny foliage earlier in the season is half their appeal and in Actaea ‘Queen of Sheba’ (main image), the greater part of why they are worth the effort. If you can find them a place where they are happy, they never deviate from elegance, rising up tall and taking up no more space than they need in their ascent. ‘Queen of Sheba’ is distinct from the usual vertical line of most actaea, in that its flowers arc in beautifully drawn lines. Dark buds open from the bottom upward to form a wand of light-catching, highly-perfumed plumage that last until the dark nights are with us for sure and the flowers finally fade away.