There is a particularly satisfying autumn scene in a shady corner of my garden. Here, the primordial beauty of orchid—like (but utterly reliable and trouble-free) toad lilies—my favourite is Tricyrtis hirta, which has white petals sprinkled with dark purple dots—adds spice to the graceful yellow wax-bells, with handsome maple leaf-like foliage held horizontally beneath extended dark green stems of pendulous yellow bells. The third partner is the late-blooming ‘White Pearl' snakeroot, which provides a vertical contrast to the spreading clumps of the toad lily and yellow wax-bells. Snakeroot is part of the bugbane family, all of which have tall, wiry wands of fuzzy, cream-coloured flowers. These plants are well worth collecting, as they provide a long season of bloom and are happy in moist woodland soil and light shade. Most gardeners are familiar with black snakeroot, the July-blooming family aristocrat with the largest leaves and flowers in the genus. The American bugbane, with a distinctly more woodland character, flowers from August into September. Late-blooming Cimicifuga simplex hybrids, such as ‘Brunette' (with deep bronze leaves) and ‘Hillside Black Beauty' (with nearly black foliage), flower in October. Both of these bugbanes have ornamental foliage that's an asset in any grouping, scented with a wild honey-like perfume.
Much of the consideration of my own garden is spurred on by the thought-provoking Christopher Lloyd (In My Garden, 1993), who advised: “To feel that you have at last achieved (even if by accident) some telling effect is a great fillip, but to go on feeling that you can just coast along with that same achievement year after year is a sure sign of mental sclerosis.” Well, doesn't that just put an edge on the day! So I must consider some new combinations. I'd like to pair my favourite ornamental grass—the subtly variegated ‘Morning Light' maiden grass, which makes a stout clump of delicate arching blades and coppery pink plumes—with two brilliant Michaelmas daisies: deep red ‘Royal Ruby' and rich violet-blue ‘Blue Lagoon'. I'll give them a backdrop of spreading cotoneaster, its wayward, scarlet-berry-laden branches cloaked in autumn with small leaves in blended colours of yellow, red and purple. I expect the late Mr. Lloyd would have had something to say about that!
The gardening calendar starts in autumn, with an opportunity to assess performance, correct mistakes and move plants toward new and better relationships.
- Begin by making some hard decisions; remove plants with chronic insect or disease problems-you'll be better off without them.
- When moving plants, consider the clump size of each partner. Oversized ones can be reduced (and more plants garnered) by dividing them to prevent an unbalanced grouping.
- Improve the soil in every new planting hole by adding compost or manure, peat moss and sand, and lightly dig some in around plants already in place. Surround each grouping with a 10-centimetre-thick mulch of leaves.
- It's a long winter ahead, so keep notes on your changes to help you remember next spring. Set plastic markers into groups, reserving the space for a plant to be added next season, and keep a “to buy” list for the following year.