Country & Garden: The first flourish of autumn

Asters, chrysanthemums and hebes choose this time of year to be their own personal springtime.
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The Independent Culture
A light melancholy affects me in the flower garden in late September. Nothing too depressing, just a growing, downbeat appreciation that the lives of so many flowers, which have served me well all summer - potentillas, anthemis, mallows, phlox, salvias, clematis - are drawing to a gentle close. I watch their passing closely (and sometimes even hasten it), for I am in the throes of that short, furious period of activity in which gardeners engage, from now until the turning back of the clocks shortens the days so dramatically.

It is not all goodbyes, however. Buds are bursting, and petals unfurling on a number of perennial plants: these have not hung on bravely from midsummer, nor are they, like so many trees and shrubs, about to take on rich autumn leaf tints, like a match which flares up brightly just before it goes out. Instead, goodness knows why they choose to flower now.

I feel about autumn-flowerers as I might (hypothetically, you understand) feel about a late-flowering love. I am grateful for what I have, but conscious that the first, fine, careless rapture of spring is gone, never quite to be recaptured. The affection I feel for plants which flower in October and November is not youthfully romantic, but sober and practical.

This is partly because the flowers themselves are solid and virtuous, even stolid; they are not mysteriously fascinating or mesmerising. They often look a bit battered, as if life has not been kind to them, but they are determined to make the best of things. I have learned over the years to cherish them, however, and I certainly would not be without them.

First in my affections is Aster x frikartii `Monch', a Michaelmas daisy with all the virtues, and none of the vices, of that uneven family. It categorically never gets mildew; its leaves are neat and rough-textured, its 90cm stems are wiry and mostly self-supporting, and the single, daisy flowers which open over many weeks, are a deep, clean, lavender-blue, with yellow centres. They have fewer, and longer, petals than is the case with the novae-angliae asters, so look less bunched and cramped. The stems are also excellent for cutting. This plant divides easily, settles down quickly, and the flowers are reasonably weather-proof.

It is a hybrid of A amellus (of which `King George' is the best known cultivated variety) and A thomsonii. There is an almost identical one called `Wunder von Stafa' and nurseries are by no means always sure what they have, so you may well ask for one and find yourself with the other. Or ask for both and quit worrying about the names. Catalogues and books may tell you that they start to flower in July; in my garden, they don't begin until August but they are still at it well in to October.

Almost equally healthy is asteris A ericoides, whose several varieties are easily distinguishable from most other common asters because each flower (of which there are many) is tiny. These flowers are held in long sprays on bushy, rather buttoned-up plants; they don't have much "give" to them, so I think they look best planted close together in groups, rather than as single plants. They usually grow to about 90cm in height. Well- known varieties are `Blue Star' (80 cm), `Brimstone' (creamy yellow), `Pink Cloud' and `Golden Spray' (white with golden centres).

No one could ever accuse the hardy chrysanthemums of elegance, but those dumpy clumps, composed of so many sturdy stems, are invaluable in October and November. The border varieties can be found under a number of headings, such as rubellum hybrids, Korean hybrids and hardy spray chrysanthemums. It does not matter, as long as they are genuinely hardy and do not need to be dug up and brought under glass in winter.

Between them, the hardy chrysanthemums boast a good range of singles or doubles, in colours which are white, pink, red, bronze, yellow, or copper. It is best to choose the ones you like in nurseries when they are flowering, for they will not all fit into the same colour scheme, and their habits are not identical. Don't buy them until the spring, however, for that is the best time to plant them.

I am particularly attached to my `Cottage Apricot', which begins to flower on 60-90 cm stems in the third week in September, and goes on easily into November. It has warm apricot, single flowers and is an excellent complement to Caryopteris x clandonensis, with its deep, pure blue flowers and silvery leaves, which I have planted in front of it. This chrysanthemum is not for a tiny garden; it has mild territorial ambitions, and is in any case so easy to divide that it ends up filling a number of spare spots.

I also love the so-called `Old Cottage Pink', otherwise known as `Emperor of China'. This may indeed be a very old Chinese variety; it has certainly been grown in this country for more than a hundred years. It needs staking, growing to 1.2m in height, but is worth it for the silver-pink flowers, with their slightly quilled petals in November, and leaves which turn a deep crimson in reaction to the first sharp frost. Others to look out for include `Mary Stoker', `Clara Curtis', `Duchess of Edinburgh' and, amongst sprays, `Bronze Elegance' and `Mei-kyo'. All flourish in a fertile soil and full sun.

The Autumn

Bloom

Sedum `Autumn Joy'; Schizonstylis cocciniea `Major', S `Jennifer', `Sunrise'; Anemone japonica cultivars; Ceratostigma plumbagioides; Liriope muscari; Perovskia `Blue Spire'; Nerine bowdenii; Hebe `Autumn Glory'

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