Live and let die…

Piet Oudolf Borders at RHS Wisley

Much that one can say about prairie style planting and especially the combination of grasses with late season perennials, is that the show doesn’t stop when the blooms die and the rot sets in – add low, slanting sun, a stiff breeze for animation and later, frost and snow – dramatic silhouettes and architectural forms continue to make a statement even as winter takes a proper hold.

For tidy gardeners, this is more of a challenge, smacking of laziness but hold back and both you (and garden wildlife) will enjoy an extended season of interest. It isn’t wholly laissez-faire – not every garden plant dies well or contributes positively once all life and colour has been drained. Others do it beautifully!

These pictures are taken from the body of the two Piet Oudolf borders running between the Lake and the Fruit Mount at RHS Wisley, and these areas are all the more successful for the decisions to manage the decay rather than scythe it all to the ground prematurely!

Don’t take my word for it, Dan Pearson, writing in The Guardian earlier this month, has something to say on the subject too –

The beds at the front of the house are planted with bronze fennel. The south-facing position and a dry summer have suited them perfectly and they are standing taller than I am. From inside you look into their airy cages and on the warm days of autumn the ripening seed has wafted the smell of aniseed through the still-open windows. Though their foliage has turned cinnamon brown and ginger, they have plenty of life in them yet. When the birds think you are out, they descend upon the seed, and the stems are filled with a network of cobwebs. Standing firm and tall, they will weather the winter winds and, as they fade, one could easily argue they have yet to have their best moment.

It is tempting to wade into the beds where they appear to be falling apart. Weighted down by seed and autumn wetness, the topple might at first appear to be something that needs managing, but a little patience is timely. This is the moment to stand back and enjoy the autumn, and wait to apply energies in the beds. In a month or so you will see the keepers in the wreckage and a new order will assert itself. Hit by frost, the apparent bulk of nasturtium will wither and make you realise that they were not much more than water. The lush rosettes of Hemerocallis foliage will also succumb, but they will leave behind the upright bones of flower stem and seedcase. Let the worms drag the rotting foliage to the ground, where it will be converted to humus and leave it to stand a while, rather than fighting the season.

Bare is the most unnatural state for soil to be in. Exposed and raked clean, it is open to desiccation and to erosion, so a little untidiness now is a good thing for a garden, not a sign of slovenliness. Our local farmer has already been cutting the hedges, the lines in the landscape taking on a new order, but the blackberries, wild currant and scarlet droplets of bryony are gone, the larder of shiny rosehips and inky elder disappeared in an instant. In a counter movement, I am holding on until the last minute, letting nature take its course before wading in and in turn allowing myself to feel a little more part of nature than the agent of control that is the gardener.

Of course we do need to assert some control if it is not to be taken from us, but the moves are strategic ones. I would prefer to let the rot happen and the birds to have the windfalls I cannot cope with in the kitchen than spend my energies battling an enormous wave. Very quickly the autumn will be in retreat, so my eyes are up and I am enjoying the colour while I wait to pick over the bare bones once the leaves come down.

I took two weeks off at the end of last month and based myself at home as an antidote to a summer of business. After a couple of days of allowing myself to settle – and deliberately not adding to my mental checklist – I, too, adjusted to the new order and saw beyond the topple of sunflowers and the browning dahlias. A little tidying to reveal the paths allowed me a way in and the clarity of a free head to order my thoughts for a winter’s work ahead of me – and into planning where to plant my new brambles.

Crazy though it may sound, I am planting weeds again. Not weeds I plan to let go, you understand, but a couple of forms of blackberry I have been meaning to grow for an age. Rubus fruticosus “Himalayan Giant” is a cutting from a friend who is slowly being engulfed by the beast, but she can pick a large bowlful of succulent brambles in a matter of minutes, the fruit is that plentiful. It can easily be wall trained if you have a fighting spirit. The second? A far more sensible choice for being thornless and of moderate vigour: the parsley-leaved bramble. Next autumn when I am beginning to feel like things are out of control, I will have my distraction. A crumble or two of seasonal windfalls.

One thought on “Live and let die…

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