EVER since that hurricane last month, I’ve spent more and more time in the eastern regions of my garden.
On the western front all is either bare or black and shrivelled, and there are days, when I can’t bear the sight of it.
Apart from beeches, who hold onto spent foliage all winter, dead leaves attached to a tree are never a good sign. If this happens during the growing season, the prognosis is a poor one: unless quickly cut to the ground, the subject in questions is bound to follow its leaves to an early grave.
It’s not as drastic as that in the autumn, but there’s a detrimental effect all the same. The turning of leaves from green to yellow, orange or red signals the completion of their job, and proves that the tree or shrub is re-absorbing the leaves’ nutrients – mostly sugars – for storage and future use. Without them the plant is a little worse off, and if this process is repeated year after year, it may suffer as a consequence, showing die-back at its outer twigs and branches.
Given the long, warm summer, this should have been a season for the most spectacular autumn colour imaginable. Warmth, drought, and sunshine tip a plant’s starch to sugar ratio in favour of the latter. The more sugar stored in a leaf, the more intense its colour when the sugar is withdrawn.
In the east end of the garden the gale never happened, and the autumn tints are unfolding in great splendour. Even shrubs and trees not usually noted for their autumnal colours have an air of seasonal glamour.
Until now Spiraeas have never featured on my list of November desirables, but all have excelled themselves this year by flaring into luminous yellow, rivalling the rugosas and echoing the butter and pumpkin shades of the Iceland birches. Hydrangea petiolaris, a self-clinging climber, can always be relied on for a regular performance. It holds on to its striking Naples yellow for a long time, and glows in the dark, guiding me to the front door when I’ve forgotten my torch.
Hoheria glabrata, a small New Zealand tree, is one of my treasures, hung with superlative pure white cherry blossom in July and August. Its elegant toothed foliage turns a clear lemon shade late in the season, so bright it stops you in your tracks, and set off to perfection by black bark.
Deciduous conifers don’t suffer as badly from the effects of the weather as their broad-leaved cousins. The only representative I have in my garden is Japanese larch (Larix leptolepis), a tree for all seasons. Its fine needles filter, rather than resist the wind, allowing it to escape unscathed.
In spring its tactile new growth and red and green swirled female flowers are a delight, during summer the rich green is a resting place for the eyes, in winter its handsome orange twigs and branches are prominent in the low light, and during autumn, just one such tree, swathed in a filigree of warm yellow, has a great presence.
Its compatriot, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, planted at the back of an east-facing border, is often overlooked by me, until its small, round leaves take on cream and pink tones in late October. On warm days, when the wind blows from the right direction, its delicate caramel scent wafts across the garden.
If I could have just one tree for autumn colour I’d probably go for Sorbus commixta, a Korean rowan that shuts down shop before the equinoctial gales arrive, a highly desirable quality at this latitude. Its silver backed leaves pass slowly through stages of yellow, tawny orange, red and bronze. All colours are present at the same time before the foliage is finally shed, and this tree, planted against a background of dark conifers, glows like a beacon.
Its natural distribution extends to Sakhalin Island and Japan, where my next candidate comes from. Enkianthus campanulatus can reach three metres in favourably conditions, is of more modest proportions in Shetland, and belongs to the heather family. Its nodding, urn-shaped flowers are handsomely veined, appear in late May, and can range from greenish cream to milk chocolate brown.
In my specimens – perhaps named cultivars for all I know – they’re sulphur yellow and marked with longitudinal bronze stripes. In some years the display can be miserly, but there’s always compensation six months later when the leaves begin to turn. The whole bush suddenly changes from green to a glowing plum red. Hillier’s Manual of Trees and Shrubs states: “. . . the exquisite colouring of the fading leaves is not excelled in any other genus.”
In Germany, during my misspent youth, I was once asked to take part in a game about colours. When I stated that my favourite was green, I was handed a “green card”. The rules and outcome of the game elude me to this day; all I can remember is my dismay when I was handed a card in a dingy, muddy shade – straight from a Dulux colour chart.
Derek Jarman, in his book Chroma, compares the perfectly preserved colours in old manuscripts with our present day offerings: “In the chalky world of Dulux and the colour chart, you remember colour was once bright and precious. There is not a drop of vermilion or ultramarine, congealing today in these rusty cans. If the Scarlet Whore of Babylon was painted with these house paints you would not notice her, but in a Book of Hours she would flame like a sunset.”
Chroma is a slim, hardback volume I often take from my shelf. Despite its name it contains no colour. The author, without the aid of a single illustration, manages to bring the colours to life and into historical, philosophical and personal context by relying purely on his descriptive powers. Brief passages of the book deal with pure pigments, taken from nature: ground minerals, crushed shells, plant extracts.
These pure shades still exist, in nature and for all to see, but for the gardener, it can, at times, be hard to find them. What once was bright and clear tends to be harsh and garish now, and I don’t care if stating this makes me sound like a miserable old sod.
Pure and bright colours only work in context, and more often than not, only if applied with a fine-tipped brush. Modern plant breeders have forgotten this rule, and pure colour, presented in huge homogenous blobs becomes either overbearing or is rendered meaningless. What compounds this problem is an over-emphasis on flower colour, leaving out all those other qualities that truly bring a plant to life and make it a fully functioning and contributing part of a garden.
Every woody and evergreen herbaceous plant you buy is visible in your garden for 365 days a year. By contrast, the flowers they produce may last for a few weeks; in many instances, if you’re honest, a few days only. Yet most gardeners, myself included, still buy their plants according to this ephemeral display.
We could all have much better gardens if we took all of a plant’s attributes into consideration, its shape, form, the colour and texture of its leaves and wood and, last but by no means least, its autumn performance.
Shetland autumns can be depressing, and I don’t blame those gardeners who turn their backs on their creation, and hang up their trowels once summer has gone. It doesn’t have to be like this. A few touches of autumn colour, a burning bush or two, or one of those Korean rowans can lift the spirits and light up the whole neighbourhood.
Shelter, preferably of the natural kind, as always, is vital, and my heart goes out to those with small gardens where a wind-filtering hedge is out of the question because of a lack of space.
Perhaps Shetland’s brand new allotment movement could show the way? Allotments are based on community spirit, and they’re bound to have a knock-on effect. I can see the gardens of whole council estates protected from the elements by just one tall, communally-owned and maintained hedge.