Autumn colour, autumn harvest

Autumn has crept gently into central France, producing muted colours with fiery highlights rather than the dazzling displays of less mild years.

Some trees and shrubs dropped their foliage at the first sign of a frost while others, confused by the warm, wet spell that followed, have hung on for another month or more, before dropping in a desultory, half-hearted and uninspiring fashion.

Every now and then however, I am stopped in my tracks by a spectacular sighting of a single Gingko or maple tree, a whole bank of Rhus or Cotinus, or a patch of forest oaks. Then Camus’s line: “autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”, makes sense again.

Autumn colour is one of the great features of this season and in many countries a tourist trade has developed around its arrival. In our mild climate we are never treated to stunning displays like those in parts of the United States or China, extending over hundreds of miles and involving millions of plants, but we have our moments. Nearly one third of the land area of France is covered in trees, an area of woodland six times greater than those of the UK. When one of the great French woodland regions gets autumn colour just right, it is a sight to be seen!

Plane bark and autumn colour

In deciduous trees and shrubs the production of green chlorophyll drops away with falling autumn light levels, while other plant pigments contained in a leaf – yellow, orange or red depending on the chemical involved – are on the increase as plant sugars concentrate. A crisp, sunny autumn will produce the best leaf colours and we have hopes of a decent end-of-season display in this part of the world is this weekend, when fine weather is forecast. Already the days are superb, despite ugly conditions on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, and we were out picking mushrooms in the woods this morning.

Berries, fruits and seeds are the other big feature of the season and this year I have been collecting some of our own to sow alongside those we are buying from the seed companies. More for fun than in any great hope of success I have sowed a pod of Lilium regale Album, which has rewards my efforts by producing seedlings in their dozens. Spurred on by this, I have since sowed Salvia argentea seeds and have a pod of Fritillaria imperialis on my desk awaiting its turn.

I am a great fan of allowing plants to self-seed but sometimes the results are disappointing, either not germinating or being ruined by my over-zealous weeding of the garden. We have had many successes however; Euphorbia wulfenii seedlings replaced an original plant which died after the first year, Verbena bonariensis is gradually establishing itself around one end of a sunny bed and many plants appear spontaneously in our gravel patio. As with outdoor cuttings, I often sow seeds I have harvested at the base of the parent plant, if only to be able to find them later. I am beginning to think that if I really want success I should be sowing in seed trays either in the garden or under cover, as I do with those I buy in packets. Some of the more simple bedding plants – Calendula, Opium Poppies and Nigella – do very well however, needing weeding out when they begin to take over.

Calendula - one of our more beautiful "weeds"

Our second delivery of packet seeds arrived today, this time from Suttons. These included a Banana, Ensete ventricosum, from their Eden Project range. I have only once, many years ago, had success with Banana and last years’ seeds (of E. glaucum) from Thompson and Morgan yet again failed to germinate. The species I have bought this time is African rather than south Asian and said to be hardier. Packets come with instructions to soak in warm water for 24 hours and I did this immediately, aware that they need to be sown at the earliest opportunity. I have found, by the way, a site “dedicated to the art of creating the illusion of the tropics in inappropriate climates” called, which is amusingly written and full of sensible advice on a range of plants, including this one. I now understand that Bananas need temperatures of around 30°C to grow and I may not have provided this in the past. No criticism intended T&M!

Lavatera Barnsley, Santolina and other joys of summer


Lavatera Barnsley showing reversion.

A common and great value flowering shrub is doing well at the moment. Lavatera x clementii Barnsley is a cross between the shrubby L. olbia and the herbaceous L. thuringiaca, a cultivar of ‘Rosea’ which is not entirely stable. In a periclinal chimaera like “Barnsley”, the meristem has mutated and contains one layer of cells which is genetically different from the remainder. This photo shows a specimen in our garden which has started to revert. The best way to avoid this is to be careful not to over-prune, something I may have done this spring. The plant is very easy from cuttings; this plant is only two years old and a one year old cutting planted in the garden is also in full flower and around 4ft tall.

Santolina chamaecyparissus is another cheap and cheerful summer flowering shrub and we have planted a group in a poor, dry area of the garden where many other plants would struggle. Cotton Lavender, as it is sometimes called, has herbal uses and is sometimes added to pot pourri, but not everyone is a fan of the smell. Some gardeners prefer to remove the flowers to create a clipped silver hedge: you can do this, but would miss this effect, which seems a shame.

Santolina chamaecyparissus

Santolina chamaecyparissus - Cotton Lavender

The Lilies which have survived the attentions of Lily Beetle (Lilioceris lilii) are in flower now, in a range of colours from white, cream and yellow, through to orange and red. I have spent what seems like hours, removing the both adult and larvae by hand but have found that Lilium regale Album stays beast free while nearby hybrids are covered. I shall be watching this effect in years to come to see if is repeated or if they just did not find L. regale this season. As a lad, one of the jobs given to us in the Royal Gardens was removing Lily Beetle from the stems of Cardiocrinum giganteum. Given that these plants can grow 10ft or more tall, step ladders were required!

Lilium regale Album

Lilium regale Album - Lily Beetle free!