Mary Keen's Garden Season by Season: Season of orange and yellow cheerfulness: Autumn

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The Independent Culture
FOR GARDENERS autumn is a time for fresh starts. I tell myself that the special effects which never quite materialised in summer '94 will be the sensation of '95. They'll need to be, because the form that secures entry to the yellow book of gardens open to the public next year has now been posted. This means we are committed to 10 weekday openings throughout the year for charity.

In our last garden we started by opening on a couple of Sundays in summer, but the pressure of crowded paths ruined it for me and, I suspect, for the visitors too. I hated people being forced to look at individual plants instead of at the whole effect, so we tried opening by appointment to groups. Before I let the visitors go, I used to give them a fierce talk about looking at the whole thing and about the enjoyment that comes from being in a garden, rather than just from looking at it. But as they set off I would hear the familiar plant-upmanship begin: 'Now, is that the form I've got, or is it the one I saw at Chelsea?'

As a visitor I do it myself, but I wonder if all this detailed inspection doesn't make us miss the point of a garden, which ought to be less about plants than place? Already I feel a lecture coming on, so I hope the visitors next year appear in very small numbers and that I find them sitting down enjoying themselves quietly, rather than agonising over the provenance of Aster frikartii 'Monch' as I have been doing today.

'Monch' is a paragon of late summer flower, out from July to October with blue- rayed daisies that never fray or crumble or seem to fall. It has a lookalike called 'Wunder von Stafa' and several other masquerading forms. Three of these are in this garden and all were sold as 'Monch'. I let them off for flowering late, because they were new, but none of them seemed to be the 'Monch' I remembered. I had got to the point of saying that 'Monch' was perhaps overrated, when I saw the real thing in a friend's garden.

Aster frikartii 'Monch' is a very desirable plant, but only if you can get the true form. The way to do this may be to go to plant centres now and buy one in flower. I suspect that some nurseries are growing it from seed and raising inferior forms because propagation by cuttings is the only fail-safe method. The friends with the real thing may have to be softened up, so that they part with a piece in spring.

There is no confusion about the naming of dahlias. They are not first choice flowers for everyone but each year I grow to love them more. 'John Street', 'Hugh Mather', 'Christopher Taylor', 'Winston Churchill', their masculine names give no clues to their colour. 'Winston Churchill' is a hot pink, 'John Street' and 'Christopher Taylor' are reds that shout across yards of grass, and 'Hugh Mather' is apricot orange. I want them all. 'Bishop of Llandaff' is the socially acceptable dahlia, which does appear in gardens where colour is rather frowned upon. It has plum-coloured leaves and single scarlet flowers. All dahlias, except the biggest dinner-plate decoratives, are easy to slot into mixed borders. They flower from July until the first frosts, giving more solid blocks of colour than the tender perennials that have become the mainstay of the gardens that get talked about.

I can't see why dahlias are thought vulgar: their flowers are often smaller than those of a peony. Perhaps it is because so many of them veer towards orange rather than pink. Another point in their favour is that unlike the tender perennials - daisies and verbenas - dahlias often live to flower another season. Planted deep and mulched with three or four inches of chopped bark they should survive all but the worst of winters.

This is a terrific time of year for colour; sensitive visitors might find the reds and oranges here rather hard on the retina. I am trying to establish an autumn corner in the difficult stony soil at the bottom of the garden. So far the spindles, Euonymus europaeus with the shocking pink and orange berries, planted among its grander relations, E. hamiltonianus and 'Red Cascade', are doing well. I want to add E. planipes, which I saw at the great Autumn Show, because its fruit are even bigger. These are backed by different forms of Rosa moyesii with pitcher- shaped fruit in different shades of red. The yellow-berried Viburnum opulus 'Xanthocarpum' is earning its keep, but the red forms have no berries at all. Nor are the crabs, Malus robusta, 'Golden Hornet' and M. trilobata, pulling their weight. There are hardly any apples at all. Next year I hope all these will contribute to the autumn special effects with masses of red and yellow fruits.

It is a time of year when London friends are surprised to hear that the garden is still a draw. By November, the low patch of the gardener's year, art galleries, theatres and friends seem particularly tempting, but until then, there is plenty to do and enjoy.

This year there may be an added reason for those in the sticks to envy those in the capital. Gardeners in London can now get a David Bellamy-approved compost delivered and spread over their gardens by conservation workers who are trained to remove their shoes before they step indoors. This mixture of cow manure and woodland waste comes from a consortium of grand landowners. Called Rich Earth, it is distributed by the commercial arm of the London Wildlife Trust (London Conservation services 071- 278 6606): pounds 95 buys the equivalent of 12-and- a-half 80-litre bags of soil improver, which works out at pounds 7.60 a bag delivered and spread over the flower bed. For country dwellers this remarkably cheap, no-sweat system is not yet on offer.