Gardening: The chaos theory

Don't despair if your garden is beginning to look a mess, says Sarah Raven - this disorder should be exploited. Lopsided cardoons, tilting sunflowers, blazing dahlias and red-hot pokers make for a spectacular autumn garden
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I'VE JUST walked around the garden. It's looking a mess. Lots of plants are bent right over with their heads lolling to one side. The paths are full of weeds and tufts of grass are coming up between the cracks. So are chives, fennel and borage, which always seem to scatter themselves from their places in the beds. And then there are the white trumpet flowers of bindweed. They look pretty against the blackness of the yew and tangling with the honeysuckle in the native boundary hedge at the bottom of the garden.

In the spring there is none of this. Everything is neat and tidy, full of health and vigour and potential. But in the autumn, my garden comes to a sloppy, disastrous end. I hold my head in my hands. It reminds me of an admin pile that hasn't been attended to for months.

Or does it? This year, I've decided to view my garden in a new light. It is not evidence of my uselessness. This is a whole new school of horticulture. Who wants a garden as sterile at the end of the year as it is at the beginning? Who wants perfect stripes on the lawn? What I have created is something new, the mood of the moment, muddle for the Millennium.

Making the leap from control mania to a love of the generous abandon of late summer and autumn is the hardest part. Once you have made it, the question is how to garden during the rest of the year so that this time becomes as good as it could possibly be? What are the ingredients for this delicious loose-limbed autumnal chaos? How do you grow things that look good as they rot, flop and fade?

To give you drama as they crash out, get some large scale giants planted. For big flowers with chunky leaves on massive, towering stems up to 10ft high, cardoons (Cynara cardunculus), the oversized cousin of the artichoke, are perfect. The silver leaves look like 4ft arrow heads and the bright purple flowers like Scotch thistles, but 10 times the size. Even though these are staked with 3in diameter chestnut posts in a circle all round every clump in my garden, they are still leaning about at drunken angles.

Sunflowers provide even greater height, but have smaller flowers. The perennial sunflower Helianthus 'Lemon Queen' is my favourite. I prefer its pale vanilla ice-cream flowers to the more usual buttercup yellow, and a two litre planting pot will provide you with great clumps 12ft high and over 3ft round. You'll need to dig it up and divide it every two or three years to keep it under control. Place it near the path to maximise its impact.

Sow some annual sunflowers, as well as perennials. These look best in great ranks, with a minimum of eight or 10 of the same colour grouped together. If you pinch out their tips when they are about 18in tall, with eight or 10 leaves already formed, you'll create huge bushes over 3ft across, rather than a single central stem which shoots skywards. Helianthus 'Velvet Queen' has almost black flowers, and 'Valentine' has petals the same colour as 'Lemon Queen' around a rich dark-brown central boss. These two are undoubtedly the best.

They look very good next to clumps of the giant reed Arundo donax, a lush, jungly plant that looks like a robust, silver-green bamboo. Most bamboos need moist ground and can be rampantly invasive, but arundo is much easier to grow while looking much the same. I have two large clumps of this on either side of the entrance to my garden, and in the autumn you have to push the curtain of canes apart to get in.

As the cardoon leaves start to look more and more ragged, Melianthus major with its serrated silver fronds will take over. You can't better its architectural foliage at this time of year. Again, don't just go for one plant, but banks of at least three. The only disadvantage of this plant is that it is tender. Living in the South, I leave mine in the ground, but cover the crown with a protective yurt of hazel and bracken. If you live in the North, you'll have to dig it up unless it is planted in a very sheltered spot. Keep it under cover during the winter and plant it out again in the spring, but don't leave it in a pot. Your plant will lose its lushness if the roots are restricted.

This should give you enough large scale plants to create a decadent autumn paradise, but you want some brilliant splashes of colour to complete the look.

The late-flowering red hot pokers, Kniphofia 'Prince Igor', K. rooperi and K. uvaria 'Nobilis' will give you fiery orange. For crimsons, scarlets, purple and pink, plant lots of dahlias in the late spring. Choose the most showy varieties, the spiky cactus flowers like the red-purple 'Hillcrest Royal', the luscious velvet crimson-black 'Alltami Corsair', the scarlet 'Wittemans Superba' and the searing cerise pink 'Kathleen's Alliance'. If you dead-head these through the summer, they'll still be going strong until the first October frosts.

This week

If you have basil in the garden or greenhouse, it will be looking a bit ropey by now. Make pesto with it by crushing it with pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and Parmesan. Monty and Sarah Don's new book 'Fork to Fork' (Conran Octopus, pounds 20) about how to grow and harvest delicious fruit and vegetables from the garden, is full of recipes such as this. For a supply of pesto that lasts all the way through the winter, they advise leaving out the Parmesan and freezing it

I have a pom-pom basil tree in a pot which has sprouted lots of shoots from the base. These sap strength from the all-important globe at the top of the trunk and you must cut them off as they appear. Use the trimmings to make cuttings for a future generation of plants. As hardwood cuttings, they are slow to root, but also slow to die, so most will be successful. Place each cutting in a small 3in pot, with a gritty mix of compost, and keep under cover. They should have rooted by the spring

Most people think of the white garden when they think of Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent (01580 715330) - conventional, pretty and meticulously maintained. But visit the cottage garden before the whole place closes up for the winter on 1 October. It's the perfect example of the chaos theory in autumn: brilliant scarlets, oranges and golds, with lots of towering foliage plants, too