Why I’m still savouring those autumn colours

Autumn bounty: Thriving plants at East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden. Autumn bounty: Thriving plants at East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012
11:23 AM

Alan Gray ponders apples, cutting and looking out for butterflies.

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At this time in the gardening year both the weather and day length can be most uncooperative, especially for those of us that are still planting.

Here at East Ruston Old Vicarage we are in the process of establishing a new orchard consisting of around 50 apple and pear trees most of which are old Norfolk varieties but, those that are not are from the rest of East Anglia.

There is one variety of dessert apple called ‘Happisburgh’ which alas, is not available this season so this has gone on a back order for next year. This apple was first recorded prior to 1925 when Henry Goude from the North Burlingham Horticultural Station spotted it in this coastal village no more than a mile from our garden and for that very reason we feel that it should be included in our orchard. It is said to bear small yellowish green nonpareil-like fruit that is quite sharp in flavour, it ripens in late August, quite early for an eating apple which probably accounts for its sharpness.

Beauty of Bath, which was introduced around 1864, is the earliest dessert apple that we grow. Its appearance is deceptive for it is an alluring shade of very bright red indicating sweetness, and it is loved by many but, I always feel that it is a little too sharp and crisp for that matter, at least for my palette. I much prefer a russet apple with a sweet but nutty flavour.

On October 31 I took myself off around the garden armed with my camera, a notebook, a cutting knife and lots of plastic bags for the cuttings that I wanted to take. Firstly, I was amazed at the amount of colour everywhere; OK some of the blossoms on plants such as dahlias were looking slightly ragged but that was not surprising considering the amount of rain and wind that we have suffered of late. The Vitis coignetiae that covers the pergola in the Exotic Garden has fired up spectacularly, I wish it would do so a couple of weeks earlier so that the last visitors to the garden could enjoy it. Last year it didn’t get pruned and consequently it has woven its way through neighbouring shrubs and a rather tall growing bamboo to great effect but, this must be arrested before it does any harm.

It is easy to forget the winter pruning of grape vines for there is a very small window when they can be cut back. This must take place when their sap is down for if tackled too early, or too late, they are likely to bleed sap from their cuts. I always think that around Christmas when the days are at their shortest is best and if the day that is chosen for this exercise is cold, crisp and clear the job is most enjoyable and very satisfying.

Vitis coignetiae is one of the largest leaved vines that we grow and it really does lend itself into growing into tall trees where its leaves can cascade down in a fiery crescendo in autumn, this works especially well with large growing pine trees as their very dark needles make a fine foil for the glamorous tints of the vine.

Another way of growing this vine and others of that ilk is to use them as ground cover. All that the gardener would need to do would be to gently guide the vines shoots along the surface of the soil pegging them down with either a forked twig or a piece of strong wire fashioned like a large hair pin. So at last I have a use for those dreadful wire coat hangers that dry cleaners insist on using when returning our clothes to us!

Foliage is especially important now as I saw when I took the photograph of the Vitis in the Exotic Garden, the very large leaves on Musa basjoo, the false banana contrasted beautifully with the vine especially as these were surprisingly intact after severe winds, which perhaps tells me just how sheltered the garden has become, also these false bananas are quite hardy. During the very harsh winter of 2010/2011 they were all cut to the ground but, all recovered with alacrity, in fact, they had to be thinned out, so prolific were their new growths. Also in the picture are the leaves of Trachycarpus fortunei, the Chusan palm which forms another contrasting shape with its large fan shaped leaves composed of many long pointed, deep green segments.

A salvia that is growing in the Exotic Garden is called ‘Wendy’s Wish’ and is a relatively new variety from Australia which we are growing for the first time this year. It grows to around a metre high and holds itself very well, its flowers are a good magenta-pink and our plants have been in flower since they were planted out in May and they are as good today as they were then which is remarkably good value indeed.

We have the annual Pennisetum Rubrum growing in front of it and these two are backed by the huge paddle-shaped, purple leaves of Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’, this is another trio of plants that works well together and is worth emulating again especially as they performed so well in such a bad summer. The only drawback is that they are all tender and need frost-free conditions during the dark months.

At the end of every summer, Maurice Riches, a regular visitor to the garden here, gives me a copy of his butterfly log. This is something that he has been keeping for many years by visiting many different sites in Norfolk. This year it does not make happy reading for their numbers are sadly down and were it not for some continental immigrants late in the year, would have been disastrous. I only hope that the news from Maurice that the greatest numbers of each variety were seen in our garden is a sign that we must be doing something right, and bodes well for the future.

Only this morning, as I was getting some logs in for the house fires, I found three hibernating butterflies sheltering among our log stacks. These were immediately ensconced elsewhere hopefully to carry on their hibernation safely without further interruption. I think that this proves the importance of log piles in the garden but one must remain alert to their contents!

Most of the butterflies have now disappeared for the season but,there are still a few Small Tortoishells basking on warm walls and gathering the last of the nectar from various plants. Soon these too will hibernate so beware of finding them in sheds, greenhouses and anywhere that provides the necessary shelter for a long winter sleep. Let us hope that next year gives us a summer that is beneficial to butterflies, gardens and, of course, human beings too!