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Diary of a Cultural Gardener: autumn/winter 2021 - 2022

26 Jan 2022

In her latest diary, Katy reflects on the less noticeable changes in our garden that follow the dramatic autumn colours.

In our temperate climate, autumn brings such an uncanny alteration in leaf colour, that sometimes we don’t notice all the subtler shifts that follow, as winter progresses through its steady deciduous dismantling.

The herbaceous perennial, Coreopsis tripteris flowers late in September, it is two metres tall, sprightly and topped with yellow daisies. It doesn’t have long to ripen its seed before the nights draw in. If you look closely at it in October, the flowerhead is all bunched up – tightening and working away internally, manufacturing its seed. However, on rainy days, something magical happens, as these old flowerheads hold just enough remaining pigment, that a raindrop caught lingering there, is itself dyed yellow just before it falls.

The spherical seedheads of the Coreopsis are tiny, the size of a button on a baby’s cardigan. As winter progresses, these little clenched fists gradually open out, and the funny thing is you never hear or see this unfastening take place, but suddenly, they are generous silhouettes, opening their palms to let their seeds blow away.

Coreopsis tripteris, early October 2021
Coreopsis tripteris with yellow water droplet, late October 2021
Plant silhouettes, December 2021

The herbaceous perennials, which make up most of the planting in our beds, have no permanent woody structure and so build themselves anew each year. When they finish their work on their seeds, they let their above-ground framework slowly disintegrate and live the winter underground in their roots. The Coreopsis, like many of our other perennials become brittle as deep winter progresses, more likely to be knocked by the wind, the frost, or the gardener, but we keep them as long as possible to enjoy their winter shape, in combination with the other sculptural plant forms. We wait until February to cut them down at the base, ready for them to grow again.

Some perennial vegetation, like the Coreopsis, seem to get darker as the winter progresses and others, such as the grasses, seem to bleach buff pale. Tom Stuart-Smith is adept in selecting and positioning these varieties, so that not only do they look beautiful earlier in the year when lush with bright colour, but are striking in refined winter tone too. The dark forms contrast against the pale, the soft against the firm, the individual against the mass, all layered to bring out the best in one another.

Winter disintegrates old plant matter in many ways, sometimes the crisp frost hardens it, more commonly, the dank humidity brings on the mush – for microbes, fungi, worms, and bacteria to begin the recycling. In whatever manner the plant deconstructs, we often get a chance to see the architecture of its engineering in winter. Just like the armatures of Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures on display in the gallery, which show the interior engineering upholding the form, we see the structure of the trees’ limbs, the framework of the old lily stems, the tiny grooves that attached the seeds to a coneflower’s cone. The outline of things that have gone before, and which will come again.