A long and tranquil autumn

2008-05-29 00:00

Phyl Palframan

Gardening, and farming, and indeed retiring to a cold winter climate, can never be boring. Yes, the seasons come round with regularity, but never monotony. Spring brings the miracle of burgeoning green, summer a burst of exuberant growth, winter the wonder of shapes and spaces sharply defined in monochrome. And autumn… well, this autumn surpassed itself: in length, well beyond the norm; and in calm tranquility, none of those bitter westerlies. Long may this last, until the onerous and dangerous fire-break burns have been completed without scarey incident.

Incidents… That’s why it’s never boring. Every season has its incidents — most of them unwelcome. And just for a change this is about climate and not crime. Late frosts in spring; hailstorms in summer; wild-fires in winter if it’s dry, blizzards if it’s wet; but autumn… one sunny, calm day after another. If this is boring I’m all for it. And this year, warm. So if this is global warming, then, we’re tempted to say, we’re all for it too. But of course “climate change” is the preferred term and that means you still never know what the next cold front will bring.

Autumn presented its signature colour orange with fiery exuberance this year. It blends with yellow in Pride of India leaves, and the Spiraea arguta hedge. And some of the Japanese maples (others go cherry red). And in other trees too numerous to mention. And in “Rhodesian” glads, and calendulas, and leonotus. Thank goodness those strongly orange perennials flower late: how would one reconcile them, visually, with the pastel summer borders?

This year it’s a humble salvia that persistently draws my eye: the pineapple sage, given to us in spring by Beth Fey (a gardener who can produce a colourful garden quicker than anyone else I know). The pineapple sage has flaming little flowers, velvety, of an intense, smouldering vermilion. We hope cuttings in a sheltered spot will ensure a repeat performance next summer, because surely the first heavy frost will scotch it and I never want to be without this particular herb ever again. It has given colour support to reliable rose favourites, Orange Sensation, Fashion and Lovers’ Meeting. The first two were acquired from Trevor Schofield ages ago and are the easiest-ever roses to propagate from cuttings. The last-named is a new frequent-flowerer from Elise and John Jackson’s amazing Heritage Nursery.

Recently Jean Mitchell wrote nostalgically of the old Carter’s Florist in Church Street, and Silverdale Nursery in Town Bush Valley (now Dunrobin) and Wiveton near Richmond. Trevor Schofield and my father were co-directors and our garden is filled with reminders. Our large-flowered blue clematis came to us from Trevor long before clematis was formally introduced to South African gardens. It starts in spring while C. montana is still flourishing its pink and white flounces, and in our garden keeps right on until the first heavy frost. Then, of course, all clematis, marking the end of the autumn idyll, begin to resemble ancient coir mattresses that have burst their casings (to quote the inimitable Christopher Lloyd; I believe his actual expression was “disembowelled mattress” – he was never one to mince his words.) Their coiled, silvery seedheads — “old man’s beards — are a brief fascination. Not conventionally beautiful but perfect examples of mathematic’s Golden Spiral.

Like I said, gardening, like love in a cold climate, is never boring…

• Phyl Palframan is a retired farmer’s wife, living on the home farm, a mother, grandmother, gardener and freelance journalist.

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