Legends of the fall: The golden, dying sunlight of autumn makes even drying seedheads look spectacular

Dylan Thomas said we should rage against the dying of the light. Though I can imagine many of us feel like stomping at the very least while the autumn nights get shorter, the dying of the light does have some advantages. As winter draws in, the sun moves through a lower arc in the sky, and light angles in the garden become much longer and more golden, lighting up leaves and drying seedheads as dusk approaches. And as we move closer to the winter solstice, the sun doesn't just travel a lower ' path across the sky, it also rises and sets further to the south every day, narrowing the angle from which sunlight appears.

It's worth thinking about how to use this soft seasonal light. In The Morville Hours, last year's surprise horticultural bestseller about the evolution of Katherine Swift's Shropshire plot, Swift explained how she wanted to mark out the sun's winter journey in the garden itself. This doesn't have to mean building a mini-Stonehenge. Simply marking the point on your fence every week where the sun is rising and setting gives you a sundial-like sense of its movement across the sky. It also gives you something to celebrate when it starts to move back again.

Even if you don't fancy a bit of new-age druidism, you can still enjoy the light itself. Tidying up the garden is a great temptation this time of year, but leave spiky seedheads such as eryngiums, cardoons and echinops for dramatic backlit silhouettes. Even garden herbs such as fennel will provide tracery for autumn sunshine and morning dew. Spider's webs are another free October treat, lighting up the garden with their silvery traces.

Plants with strong autumn colour, such as acers, the little maples, look especially good with the low light shining through their leaves. It's worth working out exactly where the sunshine will be coming from before planting autumn-colour plants, to maximise the range of shades you'll see. Think about what time of day you'll be using the garden, then try to plant so the sunshine will backlight the leaves. Every vein comes into true focus.

Finally, make sure you actually get out into the garden this time of year. There's nothing like the fresh smell of morning in October, as leaves begin to rot down and the cycle begins again. At Foxhanger in Somerset, pictured on page 25, designer James Alexander- Sinclair used gravel as a base, which allows remaining seedheads to self-sow next year's generation of small plants. Verbascums, the gorgeous grass stipa tenuissima, and bronze fennel all run promiscuous through the flowerbeds. And if there's one thing guaranteed to warm us through a long winter, it's that promise of new growth to come.

Five gardens to visit: Where to catch the spectacle of autumn

Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire

Dramatic silhouettes provided by the monastic ruins, and beautiful reflections in the water gardens of neighbouring Studley Royal all add up to a wonderful day out. On 11 October, Denise Carter of the Mid-Yorkshire Fungus Group will take a fungus foray, giving collecting and cooking advice.

www.fountains abbey.org.uk

Stourhead, Wiltshire

This garden is at its most glorious on a still autumn day, when colourful leaves are reflected in the lake for double impact. A gentle circular walk around the garden is suitable for all but the most unsteady, and you can finish with a hearty lunch in the Spread Eagle, a gastropub located just outside the gate.

www.nationaltrust. org.uk/Stourhead

Hergest Croft Gardens, Welsh Marches

A delicious garden of mature trees and shrubs which deserves to be better known. Glowing autumn colours and a planting of maples awarded National Collection status should please any October visitor, but make sure to admire the conservatory, autumn border, and pumpkins in the kitchen garden, too.

www.hergest.co.uk

Westonbirt Arboretum

Hundreds of thousands of people will descend on Westonbirt over the next month to gawp at the fall colour in this world-class tree collection. Avoid the Old Arboretum crush and head to the New Arboretum to walk in old Forestry Commission larch plantations now underplanted with hundreds of Japanese maples. www.forestry.gov.uk/westonbirt

Kew Gardens

Last year the gardens looked as if they had been set alight with blazing scarlets and oranges, from red oaks, sweet gums and maples. Let kids amuse themselves on Treehouse Towers, the outdoor play area with rope bridges and zip wires, or take a free Tapestry of Trees Tour with an expert guide, daily, focusing on autumn foliage. www.kew.org

Three autumnal plant pleasures

Berberis thunbergii 'Erecta'

Not the year-round school-uniform burgundy variety, but one with crisp green leaves throughout the summer that turn in autumn to the brightest reds and oranges. Grows very straight, hence the name, and deeply thorny, so good for a boundary. £6.95 from www.perryhillnurseries.co.uk

Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire'

You have to be mean to get repeated joy from these dogwoods (left), as all the stems must be cut back to produce the fiery-coloured twiggy new growth. But this will light up your garden even on the dingiest winter day. £7.99 from www.crocus.co.uk

Angelica gigas

Common wild angelica, at 6ft-7ft high, is an impressive plant. But Korean Angelica gigas is even more stunning, bearing deep-purple flowerheads before staying skeletal through the autumn. £6.99 from www.crocus.co.uk

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