A natural form of therapy

Don't give in to SADness. Get into the garden. By Anna Pavord
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"Glorious summer leaves a SAD legacy". The newspaper headline caught my attention because I thought it was going to be about the beeches and other trees that suffered so appallingly over the long months of drought. As you walked in summer by the big stands of ancient beeches that are such an integral part of chalk landscapes, you could almost hear the trees panting. In a desperate attempt to protect their ripening crop of nuts, they were dropping their leaves even by early August.

But the story wasn't about that at all. It was about the dramatic increase in the number of people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. The long, bright, sunny summer ended rather suddenly with an extremely wet autumn and the effect, according to Jon Simmonds, secretary of the British SAD Association, has been "devastating". Dr Peter Raven of London's Maudsley Hospital, believes that up to two and a half million people in Britain could be suffering from SAD. I do not think any of them can be gardeners.

For anyone with a square foot of earth under their noses, autumn has come as a wonderful balm and comfort. The earth is soft and yielding again, grass that had been burned and dessicated by relentless summer sun has miraculously greened up and shrubs such as choisya, which sometimes toss one the odd blossom in autumn as an afterthought, are blooming now as profusely and swoonily as they ever did in May. The crops of fruit are heavier than in any other year I can remember. Every day one wakes to a burgeoning, magnificent affirmation of nature's ability to repair itself.

One of the huge advantages of gardening in this country is that there are four clearly differentiated seasons. Far from mourning the lost days of summer, the gardener looks forward to the next act of the garden play. The plot is slightly different each year. The star of one autumn season may have been murdered by the time the next one comes round. A supporting character that you thought was going to have only one line to speak may try to take over the plot, upstaging those who you thought should be in the limelight.

Each season has its own raison d'etre. The tall, intense blue heads of the monkshoods are far more telling in the slightly diffuse, suspended, milky light of an autumn morning, than they would be in the harsh brilliant light of summer. Submerged somewhere in one's response to the monkshoods is the knowledge that they are poisonous. It increases one's respect for them. They have power.

The monkshood and the colchicums alone would make autumn a season worth waiting for. The colchicums have been in such a hurry to flower that the buds, piercing leafless through the ground, spear fallen leaves of the snakebark maple above on their tips and then open, with the leaf stuck as a ruff round the bare white stem.

Squirrels long ago dug up the labels I carefully buried by each different group. Colchicums are a nightmare to identify, as there are nearly a hundred different species. They are often called autumn crocus, but they are not really like crocus at all. The stalks are extensions of the petals, fused together in a white tube which may be seven or eight inches long. All mine are mauve-purple, and some have petals that are netted more deeply with purple to give a chequered, tessellated effect.

There is a type, C agrippinum which has very strongly chequered flowers. I planted it once, but it seems to have been swallowed up in that great underground cavern of lost plants, which if I ever thought about it, would turn out to be rather better furnished with flowers than the garden on top of it. The ones that are flourishing are C speciosum, one of the best (and easiest) of colchicums, C tenorii from Italy, which has faintly tessellated flowers, and 'Lilac Wonder', which is very vigorous. They are schizophrenic plants. In autumn they want you to think they are delicate, palely loitering things. In spring, when the leaves appear, they reveal their second nature which is bossy, beefy and irritatingly dominant.

Between the gales that always mark the equinox, the garden has had a curiously poised, still, expectant quality as though everything in it is holding its breath. I feel like that, too. Each day like this, each perfect, still, hazy, rich day might be the last of its kind. The next gale might rip all the leaves from the trees, the first frost is waiting somewhere where I can't see it to bring to an end the extraordinary late flush of bloom on the 'Buff Beauty' rose.

Seedlings are sprouting everywhere, especially in the paths, which they thought must have been kept clear especially for them. The sight is exhilarating. This ground has been parched, cracked, hideously baked all summer and here it us, after only a month, growing seedlings thicker than mustard and cress. There is a small forest of Verbena bonariensis, which is useful as I had thought I would have to sow fresh seed next spring in order to increase my stocks.

It is a plant, tall, self supporting, with long-lasting knobs of purple flowers, that you can slip into many situations. As it has practically no leaf, you can use it to great effect in the foreground of plantings. Then you look, as if through a beaded curtain, at what is going on beyond.

Autumn generally is not a good time to prune shrubs. Pruning tends to kick a shrub into action, make it send out new shoots to replace the ones that have gone. You do not want this to happen as winter approaches because there is a danger that the new young growth will be cut back by frost. But this is a good time to assess trees in the garden and decide whether it would be a good idea to lift the canopy of a particular tree by removing one or two of its lowest branches. The job itself is best done after leaf fall.

If you are growing a tree for its bark, it is often an advantage to lift the canopy so that the trunk of the tree stands out more clearly. If you are growing herbaceous plants close underneath a tree, then lifting the canopy will ease their lives considerably. It will allow more light to percolate through to the plants underneath and they will not show such a tendency to lean out from under the umbrella of the tree's leaves.

With a tree such as amelanchier, you have a choice whether to grow it as a single stemmed plant or as a multi-stemmed bush. Both are good, but if you are short of space, the former is better. You can gradually take out branches growing low on the trunk so that the whole of the tree's growth is concentrated in a neat head about eight or nine feet off the ground. This means that you can grow other plants right up to the trunk of the tree.

The amelanchier's leaves are turning now, orange, foxy russet, red and yellow, all mixed up with the brilliant tomato hips of a rugosa rose and the wildly exuberant purple and pink flowers that cover a big fuchsia behind. The primroses are sprouting new leaves. There is even one on the bank in full flower. SAD? The answer may be to forget the psychiatrists and get a garden, get an allotment, get a windowbox. Get gardening.