Ursula's Cambridge Garden

Freelance gardener, plantswoman and garden-designer writing from my small urban garden in a great city

Autumn Arcadia


Clematis tangutica ‘Bill MacKenzie’ doing its best for the autumn colour display.

I have always followed the rule I was given when I first started gardening – autumn is THE season to do anything major in your garden, and no other time.

Change any plantings, divide perennials, move shrubs, plant new plants, and get your bulbs in the ground in October/November when the ground is still warm and the plants are dormant.  A bit later in December, when it’s frosty and even snowing, is for planting bare root roses.  Exceptions to the rule are non-spring-flowering bulbs (which need to be planted in spring itself) and grasses (which prefer to be divided or planted in March, when their cycle of show and display is finished and ready to start again).

Vitis vinifera purpurea turning red in the early morning sunshine.

Once you are committed to this traditional way of organising your gardening year, it is actually liberating rather than constraining – you are not duped into believing you can pop any plant in whenever you like (like a piece of furniture in a room) and expect it to thrive.  You really can’t.  I only ever had one year when I thought I would plant a few things at strange times, and it was a disaster – what could I have been thinking of?!

Also, by following ‘the plan’ you are taught that most important of all gardening attributes – patience.

Crocosmia ‘Babylon’ still flowering in late September.

It’s all about thinking ahead to autumn and what you’ll change, add or subtract from the ongoing picture composition that is your garden and your unique combination of plants.  In reality this means a year of studying how your plants are doing, writing things down a lot (notes of plants to avail yourself of in the future are very important) and because you’ve got a whole year, plenty of time to think properly about your choices.

Wild geranium turning crimson.

So, whilst gardeners glory in every change of season, loving and nurturing every highlight as the gardening year sweeps by, at the back of their brains ‘the plan’ is hard-wired to keep rolling on from one October to the next, waiting for the much anticipated moment when we can finally step out on a nice crisp, sunny October day and really become ‘at one’ with our borders – assessing, moving, re-organising and relishing the freedom to dig up and split perennials, knowing we are improving the overall picture, multiplying our plants and having a hands-on, close-up moment with our precious charges.

Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’

Dan Pearson was writing in the Observer last weekend about how gardening is a cerebral, as well as a tactile experience – your ‘to do’ list is always flickering away in your head, whilst you are enjoying getting your hands dirty.  I agree that both sides of the activity are so important.  Although I spend a lot of time writing about gardening, there’s nothing quite like the actual doing – being outside in the fresh air and engaging with the soil is the most wonderful thing, and the buzz you get from a day’s hard graft in the garden is like nothing else.

Sedum ‘Matrona’ just beginning to turn.

So, you may say, what if I feel a year is just too long – what if I am ruled by the ‘I must have that now’ attitude?  Well, you have to unlearn that feeling of instant gratification that is so 21st century, and learn the gentler art of waiting and planning – it’s much more satisfying in the end and so much better for your plants too.

Bergenia ‘Overture’

I have been working on my plan all year, and over the next fortnight I will be putting it all into action, as September slips into October, and I’m so excited about getting out there and enjoying all the hard work.

Unidentified Acer turning from summer lime to pink on the way to crimson.

I have three main beds in my back garden, my shade bed (which requires no specific changes this year), my new bed, which needs complete root and branch re-planting and re-thinking, especially focusing on plants that need baking conditions, and the long bed (though it’s not really very long, except to me!) which is being augmented rather than changed.  My tiny front garden  is also due for additions.  Then there’s the allotment which requires a vast amount of weeding and tidying (after much neglect this summer), irises to be retrieved, and garlic to be planted.

So, there is a great deal to get done, as ever.

Lots of lovely new aquisitions awaiting planting!  On the left Cornus Alba is starting its fiery display.

I have been coveting many planting intentions for a whole year, culled from extensive reading and admiring, and now the scraps of paper and scribbled notes have become a list, and all the plants are sourced and awaiting planting.  So watch this space …they’ll be in situ very soon now!


15 thoughts on “Autumn Arcadia

  1. I enjoyed greatly your blog on grasses Ursula. Most of my grasses have been grown in pots for years – I just havn`t the courage to let them go free in the garden and spread. However ,I think now I would like to give them the freedom they deserve and with your help get them placed so they can flourish. Mum.

  2. Hi there Ma – thanks for the comment – grasses are of course up there with the greats of autumn display as they turn so many gorgeous colours and keep going right through to February – we will liberate those pots! Love Ursula

  3. Ah, yes, fall planting is such a pleasure. Although, consistent with this year’s strange weather, it was quite hot when I did put in my new perennials in mid-September. Had to keep watering them to keep them from drying out.

    • Hi there Jason – thanks for reading – I love the way you call it fall, it has so much more romance than our autumn! Congratulations on your blogging ‘award’ by the way – richly deserved. Happy gardening! Kind regards Ursula

  4. A beautifully written — and sensible — post. I always feel very sad at the end of summer because the growing season is ending. Autumn is always my clean up time — but your reminder to plan and plant in fall is very nice reminder that I an still enjoy the soil. Enjoy the day.

    • Hi Kevin, thank you so much, you are very kind. Yes it’s true our mood as gardeners effects how we percieve the seasons, doesn’t it? I hope I didn’t seem didactic – I was trying just to be positive, as you confirm! Happy gardening, and thanks for reading. I’m really enjoying your witty blog, great fun to read and very inspiring. kind regards Ursula

  5. I couldn’t agree more with the other guys this is such a beautiful written article and fall is sort of a more cautious time of year to start planting, I feel it makes me think more about how to do it with the air temperatures and the unpredictable weather it makes gardening that bit more exciting.

  6. Hi there Ian – thank you so much for your kind comment. Actually I’ve just sat down at the old dashboard for a moment after 5 hours of hard graft on the garden – round one of the new dividing and planting completed, same again to follow on Monday. Such a glorious day, a very satisfying task. Glad you liked the post, and happy and exciting gardening! Kind regards

  7. Brilliant and useful Autumnal hints with lovely photos too. Excellent and will pass on to my gardening chums!
    Please keep up the tips as the seasons progress!

  8. Ursula an autumn hedgerow plant that has surprised me is the spindle tree (Europaeus) dark green leaves now turning a pink/purple with lovely small cerise pink flowers out of which emerges an orange berry,wholly delightful and a complete surprise to me.Wayne

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  10. But remember all the annuals you need to put in during swing/early summer! Enjoyed the post and photos.

  11. Swing? I thought I’d typed ‘spring’. It’s either me or the computer that thinks it knows best!!

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