Victoria Summerley: Colour prejudice in the English garden

As George Bernard Shaw once remarked, it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him. Today, you could substitute the word "garden" for "mouth" and the aphorism would still hold true.

It is a peculiarly English trait, too. Geographical and climatic differences mean that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are more or less immune to this sort of idiocy. There's no point turning your nose up at heather or conifers if that's all that will grow in your mountainous or moorland backyard.

In England, however, gardens are supposed to look a certain way, and contain certain things. They are supposed to have roses, lavender, clematis and lavender – lots of flowers and lots of things that smell nice. So far, so good. But then a combination of snobbery and taste fascism starts to creep in. Hedges should be of yew, or box, not Leylandii (too common) or privet (too suburban). Somewhere there should be a lawn, and perhaps a pond, but definitely not a water feature, unless it is a tasteful Cretan pot, gently brimming over.

Spitting frogs or naked girls are a little, shall we say, manneken pis, but the use of old lavatory bowls or bathroom basins is perfectly all right - if done with irony. You can get away with nearly anything if you do it with irony, apart from wrought irony, which should be exactly that, not cast aluminium. Trees should be native, preferably, and conifers are frowned upon (too 1970s), especially dwarf conifers (too naff). There are exceptions, of course, but you have to know what they are. Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani), for example, is a perfectly acceptable conifer as long as you have a large croquet lawn and a table laid for afternoon tea beneath it.

Summer bedding – petunias, geraniums (especially scented geraniums) and so on – is all right in containers (no white plastic urns, please), but massed busy lizzies in the flower beds is definitely beyond the pale, especially if it is a mixed selection in a riot of salmon, magenta and scarlet edged with a border of blue and white lobelia. (Too public park.)

Colour prejudice, indeed, is the biggest problem faced by those trying to flout the English garden regulations. Flowers are supposed to be pink, blue or white (or tasteful variations thereof, such as mauve or lilac), and leaves are most definitely green, never variegated. Foliage in brilliant orange, red and yellow is frowned upon, except in autumn when the metamorphosis of summer verdure to brazen fall boscage is too shortlived to offend the taste police.

No one ever wrote down these rules, but they are there, as firmly rooted as an English oak, along with all the other arcane subtleties that mark out our class distinctions.

If, like me, you have a garden filled with sub-tropical specimens with foliage and flowers in suitably torrid hues, people look at you very oddly indeed. You have to compartmentalise it for them; put it into a category. "It's a climate-change garden," you tell them, or "an exotic garden". Then they will visibly relax. But you know that inside they're still slightly troubled by the big red banana leaves and the bright yellow bamboo stems, and are hankering for the old English pink, white and blue.

The trouble with the pastel posse is that they spend this time of the year moaning that their garden has "gone over" and that it's so difficult to find flowers for a late summer display.

I'm always amused by this. My garden is full of flowers that bloom in August: cannas (orange and yellow, with variegated leaves), crocosmia (red, yellow and orange), begonias, fuchsias, osteospermum, heucheras (coloured foliage) and nasturtiums (red and orange). Some are even scented, such as the lilies, nicotiana and trachelospermum (star jasmine). I know, though, that if anyone asks me what I would recommend for late-summer colour, any suggestions along these lines will be declined with a politely wrinkled nose or hint of curled lip.

What the hell. At least the last thing anyone would do in a garden like mine is to lie back and think of England.

The would-be woodpecker

Talking of bright colours, I was looking out at the garden the other day when I saw a flash of red swoop across the lawn. Intrigued, I crept closer and saw a black and white bird with a bright scarlet head sidle up the trunk of the pine tree where I hang my bird feeders and launch itself at the suet balls. A woodpecker!

But which woodpecker? I ran to the computer and consulted the RSPB site. There are three woodpeckers found in the UK, the great spotted, the green and the lesser spotted.

The great and lesser are quite similar except that the lesser spotted is smaller and has a distinctive red head. Not only that, but while the great spotted is reasonably common, the lesser spotted is on the red list, i.e. globally threatened. Was this a lesser spotted?

The only way to make sure was to get a photograph. I didn't hold out much hope, but the woodpecker seemed to have made a beeline – or perhaps that should be a woodpeckerline – for the fat-ball feeder, so it had obviously dined there before. Sure enough, about a couple of hours later, there it was again on the trunk of the pine. This time I got a picture – and this time I could clearly see that it was a great spotted, with the distinctive white vertical bar, like an upraised finger, on its shoulder. Apparently, the juveniles have red heads and this is what had misled me. Never mind. It's confirmation that feeding the birds all year round really does work in terms of attracting different species. And it's a thrill to see a woodpecker of whatever variety in the garden.

Victoria Summerley's garden is open for the National Gardens Scheme on Sunday 29 August;