Farewell to summer, autumn’s on the horizon…

Back in the day, it always seemed as if there was a distinct chill in the air on the first day back at school, so I always anticipate a crisp biting feel to early September, but the truth is more likely that the first day of school was the first in six weeks I was up early enough to feel that chill, after a summer of lazy starts. 

The last couple of years, though, we’ve barely even had a frost at the height of winter, let alone autumn, so that first chilly morning just doesn’t register with me at all, and I measure the gradual change in seasons by other means – the day I put away my flip flops and reluctantly got out my slippers, and the day I much less reluctantly made plum cobbler with the fruits of  Beryl-down-the-road’s tree, along with the first Sunday roast of the season. 

  

Our garden is still looking lush and green, after a few spectacularly wet days which restored the lawn from its summer dry spell, and we took the opportunity to do a bit of real – if rather basic – bit of structural work to the bane of my life, the raised bed.

One of my repeated frustrations with having such a large raised bed was the inability to work on it without trampling plants – and I end up gardening round the edges and never in the middle.

So a quick trip to Homebase for some aggregate and stepping stones later….

  
…and I now have the ability to cross the bed from front to back without having to tread on anything. I’m hoping the stepping stones will also give a bit of structure to the bed, and if I can encourage creeping plants to bed in around them and soften the edges, I’ll keep working towards my goal of as little visible bare earth as possible.

Here’s how it looks a week or so on – lovely cosmos in the left foreground which I hope is going to flower before the end of the year, but on the far side of the bed I’m still swamped by marigolds which no amount of weeding and hoeing can get rid of.

  
I suspect it will go on being a work in progress (aka dog’s dinner) for a long while yet – but at least the stepping stones make it a more practical space to work in now.

Beyond our own little patch, I’ve seen a few signs of autumn approaching – and given me yet again a few ideas of plants I’d like to have in the garden one day.

On Wimbledon Common we saw gorgeous teasel heads:

  
– a must-have in the garden for attracting seed-eating birds like goldfinches, and in their own right as a beautiful piece of natural sculpture.

At Dulwich Park we saw a favourite from my childhood (and from Flower Fairies of the Autumn), the glorious spindle, a plant so glamorous I can hardly believe it exists in nature.

  

Aren’t they splendid? If the shocking Schiaparelli pink outer shell of the berry weren’t impressive enough, they split open to reveal a flame coloured berry within. Such an unexpected contrast! I’ve decided I definitely MUST have spindle in the garden somewhere.

(However surprising that clash of pink and orange, it can’t beat the shades of these heathers I saw in Homebase the other week for unnatural garishness. How these colours were achieved other than by spray-painting them, I don’t know. And who would want such horrid plants in their garden, I have no idea).

  

Dulwich Park also has a lovely wild flower meadow which was packed with poppies and cornflowers when I saw it last. Much more restful to the eye.

  

Then we were back in Suffolk for a weekend and every field seemed crammed full of fungi, including this specimen:

  

– I certainly don’t know enough about fungi to take any risks (and I don’t endorse anyone picking anything without knowing what it is), so I left that one well alone, but I did decide I recognised a plain old field mushroom well enough when I saw one and took these beauties home:

  

(And no ill effects from eating them roasted alongside our home grown tomatoes, so I think I’m safe).

  

What’s next? I still have a few pie-in-the-sky gardening plans before the end of the year which I’m trying to make a bit more concrete, but in the mean time, let’s make hay while the sun shines and keep enjoying it all.

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A walk around…Helmingham Hall

As promised in the last blog, there was one more place we visited in Suffolk which deserved a blog entry all of its own – a garden so stunning I am still not quite sure it was real.

Just a few miles from where we were staying is Helmingham Hall. The house itself is an impressive moated Elizabethan pile, but is not open to visitors – in any case, the Chelsea-medal winning gardens are what people (by people, meaning ‘me’) come to see. 

  
You approach the main garden down an avenue of fruit trees, and then wind through a wild flower meadow and woodland area before crossing a bridge into the walled garden – all the while getting tantalising glimpses, Secret Garden-style, of the treasures within. 

  
It was well worth the wait to see what was inside….

   
   
What seemed like miles and miles of borders, all fully packed from front to back with flowers in bloom. Not a weed in sight, not a plant out of place, everything so tightly packed you could barely see a patch of soil.

The amount of effort that goes into making gardens like this, I can scarcely imagine. The planning required to get the right heights of plants in the right places, the seasonal planting, the colour schemes, just seems exhausting to me – who can’t even keep one raised bed consistently planted and looking anything other than patchy and shambolic!

Of course this garden has its peaks and troughs too – the wild flower meadow was past its best when we saw it, and the sweet peas were all but done, but we saw the ‘late summer’ borders just coming to their peak.

  
This border particularly impressed me with its composition – the contrast of light and dark foliage, the ivy providing a uniform backdrop to the sharp oranges and yellows of the flowers – but all offset by the graceful verbena providing height and a restful purple hint after all that citrus.

Now, I’d never think of planting a bed like this. I don’t know my shrubs well enough to know what background foliage to put in, I prefer blues and purples and pinks so I avoid yellow and orange flowers – so I miss out on the striking contrasts a display like this can give you. 

Well obviously I don’t also have years of experience or a fleet of gardeners helping me, either, but this picture does give me some sense of what I’d like my raised bed to be like – lots of different shapes and heights, no gaps or bare earth, lots of contrast, a sense of there being waves of colour laid over darker foliage. Well, it’s something to work towards.

Besides the borders, there were avenues of runner beans and squash, lavender in full bloom, beds of globe artichoke, sweet corn and courgette, and lovely flowers everywhere you looked.

    

  

   
 
Lots of mental notes of plants I’d like in the garden one day…alliums, more poppies, ornamental thistles…plus, the bare bones of the garden structure itself was beautiful, too – the gates, the statues and urns all looking exactly the part.

   
    
 
There was even space for a little topiary of the less conventional kind.

   
 
On the other side of the house was a smaller garden holding a traditional knot garden, mainly planted with herbs.

 

There was also, I was relieved to see, what appeared to be a bit of private fenced-off garden for the family to be away from prying eyes (where else to put your swing ball or hang out your washing?)

I can’t imagine what it’s like to have this as your real, actual everyday garden – I wonder if the owners do go and sit in the main walled garden when all the visitors are gone, or do they see it as more of a stage set for the glorious flowers, rather than somewhere to actually live in, to belong?  
Truth be told, I don’t spend much time sitting in my garden, either – sitting in the house looking at it, yes, but not in it. That is something I’d like to change next year if we can sort some better garden furniture.

I would recommend Helmingham to anyone who even slightly likes gardens – though be prepared to come away with serious envy of all the plants you’ll never have time or space to grow.
Plus the pretty, rather shabby  stables courtyard cafe gave us a chance to watch baby house martins being fed in their nests while we ate our lunch – how lovely is that? 

I’ll be making a plan to come back to Helmingham one day -maybe next time a guided tour….