The first serious frosts are forecast this weekend, so we have been busy these last few days. Bringing in the last of the tender perennials and putting trays of young plants grown from seed into the polytunnel to protect from winter wet. The frames are full to bursting with spring bulbs and all the things that need cossetting. Just this morning the gunnera were cut down and covered before the freeze withers their foliage. This last job of the season is a pleasure, crafting their winter hats, upturning their huge leaves, one overlapping the next, to protect the primordial crowns from whatever winter brings.
With the turn in the weather, the last of the autumn colour is being driven from the woods and hedgerows and, in the garden, we see the very last flowers. The final asters, speckled now and dimmed, a few brave kniphofias challenging the season and nerines holding still in their month-long reign of colour. But really this is it. The turning point from one season to the next.
This week’s mantlepiece is a celebration of this moment, drawn out as far as we can take it with chrysanthemums. We grow six varieties in pots down by the polytunnel and it is something of a miracle when they finally come to fruition. In the full flight of the growing season they have to make do with the very minimum of maintenance, because their reward feels so very far away. Time goes into the here and now of what needs focus, but once we see the buds set they get a regular feed along with the tomatoes. We also stake them so that their rangy stems and brittle limbs head skyward, but there is never the time to tend to them in textbook, show-growing fashion.
Sometime in October, before storm or frost and once the tomatoes are cleared from the polytunnel, we bring them under cover. Not so soon that they are subject to mould, but with enough time for their flowers to go through their final metamorphosis in the calm atmosphere within. A final moment of the attention they really deserve and enough to push the flowers for this last fortnight of autumn.
A couple of firm favourites – ‘Saratov Lilac’ and ‘Goshu Penta’, with their finely drawn filaments – are overwintered and kept on the dry side in the polytunnel, so that we can take fresh cuttings again in March. For the rest, we experiment from year to year with new varieties. Halls of Heddon and Chrysanthemums Direct both hold a good range.
New to us this year ‘Thomas Russell’ is a Late Single in a beautiful shade of blood red, and is unusual for being sweetly scented. For the effort we are able to put into them, though, we prefer the reward of opulence and otherworldliness. ‘Beacon’ is a Late Intermediate with incurved petals that reveal a copper underside, while ‘Dorridge King’, although a similar colour, has gently reflexed petals with a more open form to the flower. If we were growing these plants with the rigour they probably deserve, we would have disbudded them some time in May to ensure they put all their energy into just one flower per stem. Then the petals would have been preened and coaxed into perfect alignment, like a milliner might arrange the feathers on a hat. But here they are, as perfect as we need them to be, reminding us that that even a little bit of extra effort goes an awfully long way.
Words: Dan Pearson | Flowers & photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 25 November 2023