Seasonal scene stealers

This autumn has been disappointing for foliage colour – but it’s been a great season to admire other glories of the garden, writes…

This autumn has been disappointing for foliage colour – but it's been a great season to admire other glories of the garden, writes FIONNUALA FALLON

HMMM. IT HAS not been, to quote George Eliot, a “delicious autumn”. In fact, I’d go so far as to say – with a “harrumph” – that it’s been a particularly wet, windy and dreary one. What’s more, it’s been an especially disappointing one as regards breath-taking displays of fiery seasonal foliage colour, with very few of the scorching hues of umber, bronze, copper and gold that wannabe “leaf peepers” like myself were hoping for and instead gloomy shades of grey and brown.

One telling example is the horse chestnut, whose large, palmate leaves are normally the colour of butterscotch by early October but which barely turned to a pale shade of beige last month before they, too, started to drop.

Meanwhile many other old reliables of the autumn garden (for example the Crimson Glory vine, Vitis coignetiae, the Toffee tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum and the native spindle, Euonymus eorupaeus) have also been pale shadows of their normally showy selves.


And these, I might as well glumly add, are the “lucky” trees and shrubs whose canopy of leaves escaped or survived what’s now known colloquially as “the Obama storm”, or what Michael Viney called “an gaoth ruadh” – a scorching, salty, searing gale that arrived late last May to batter trees and shrubs growing along the country’s west and northwest coast and even up to 65km inland, leaving many with deadened foliage for the rest of the summer.

“It’s been an extremely challenging , unusual and difficult gardening year,” agrees Paul Maher, curator of the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin 9. “Many plants died in the harsh winter, while those that survived struggled on in the poor summer. And while a few trees and shrubs in the gardens are showing very handsome autumn colour, such as the Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica) and Cappodocian Maple (Acer cappodocicum), many others lost their leaves last month before they’d even had a chance to colour – a result of that very cold, and violent north-easterly gale that we got back in early October. Others still haven’t coloured up at all – and perhaps won’t at this stage. The thing is that the very best displays of autumn leaf colour come when you have long stretches of bright, warm sunshine followed by cool, clear nights, whereas this year there’s been a lot of dull, damp and unseasonably mild weather.”

But if this autumn has been a disappointing one for foliage colour, the bonus for the country’s hard-pressed gardeners is that it’s been a great season in which to admire other glories of the autumn garden, from the richly textured bark of many different ornamental trees – for example, the Paper Bark maple (Acer griseum) the Himalayan Birch (Betula utilis var, jacquemontii) and the Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula) – to the many brilliantly coloured fruit and berries that are on cheery display.

Along with the many ornamental cultivars of the Mountain Ash, one of my own personal berry favourites is the Beauty Berry, Callicarpa ‘Profusion’, a medium-sized, deciduous shrub whose jewel-like, violet-coloured berries are borne in dense clusters throughout the autumn, even after the plant has dropped every last one of its leaves. After seeing it growing in a friend’s protected garden, I also fell in love with the metallic blue berries of the Glory Bower shrub, Clerodendrum trichotomum var. fargesii, each of which is encased in bright pink calyces to form pretty clusters of dainty, five-pointed stars.

The well-known Wicklow-based flower arranger Carol Bone, who is the chairperson of the Association of Irish Floral Artists (, is also a particular fan of the subtle, seasonal beauty to be found in the autumn garden. Her favourites include the giant, faded flowers of mop-headed hydrangeas and the intricate seed-heads of crocosmia (both of which she picks and dries before using in arrangements) as well as the ornamental crab apples (Malus sp.), whose slender branches are festooned with brightly coloured fruit at this time of year. “I also like to pick and dry the faded seed-heads of agapanthus and the flower-heads of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ as well as any brightly coloured rose hips that I can find,” says Bone.

As for June and Jimi Blake (,, the sibling gardeners whose two wonderful west Wicklow gardens are located a few miles outside Blessington, they each also have their own autumn favourites. “Along with the ornamental, evergreen grass, Chionochloa rubra, I’m a particular fan of the Prairie Dropseed, Sporobolus heterolipis ‘Wisconsin Strain’ – a compact grass with the most magnificent, reddish-bronze foliage that I got from Mount Venus nursery ,” says June. “Even now, in early November, it’s looking wonderful. The herbaceous perennial Polygonatum verticillatum is also looking fantastic with lots of bright red berries along its tall stems.”

Jimi, meanwhile, is especially proud of a rare Viburnum betulifolium, which he first got many years ago from Mount Usher gardens ( . “It is, without doubt, one of the stars of the garden – a brilliant, shade-tolerant largish shrub with lots and lots of big, bright red berries that it holds on to right through the winter and even into the following summer,” he says with pride.

All of which goes to show that even when a garden is rudely stripped of its more obvious autumn finery, there’s still an abundance of berried treasure to be discovered underneath.

This weekend in the garden

Where soil is not waterlogged, continue to plant bare-root and container-grown shrubs, trees, fruit bushes

Plant tulip bulbs

Plant garlic bulbs

Protect vulnerable polytunnel crops from frost with garden fleece

Lift any tender plants (dahlias, tuberous begonias, cannas, gladioli) and store in a cool but frost-free place, or mulch heavily to protect against frost

Finish weeding and manuring shrub/flower/vegetable beds

Collect leaves to make compost