Welcome to my garden, which I have been cultivating for a quarter of a century. At five intervals, from early spring in 2010 to late winter in 2011 Sarah Blunt, BBC Natural History Unit Senior Radio Producer, visited to record the highs and lows of a single gardening year for the Radio 4 series Elegies from a Suburban Garden. When you have been cultivating the same patch of land for so long it becomes an important part of our life. Over the years it has been a place for our children to play, a source of food and aesthetic pleasure, a laboratory for studying plants and home to an amazing variety of wildlife. Every annual cycle is unique and as each year passes the garden evolves. Why Elegies? Well, when you are a gardener you tend to look upon the passing of time as the cycles of seasons, rather than as minutes, hours and days and when you look back on each cycle you cannot help but reflect that another has passed so much more quickly than you anticipated - which makes those that will follow all the more precious.

Thank you for visiting.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Elation: Early Autumn

Summer has slipped away and some of the trees are already showing a hint of autumn colour. Most of the vegetables have been harvested but summer annuals like the pink Cosmos in the foreground here will flower right up until the first frosts in November.
The silver birch that started life in the beech hedge as a seedling twenty five years ago is a graceful tree all year round, but its golden foliage in autumn is someting I always look forward to.

Annual dahlias were the first plants I ever grew, when I was given a packet of seed as a child - an inspired choice, as they germinate easily, flower reliably and produce flowers in the kind of bright sweetshop colours that appeal to children. I grow a few in most years, as a reminder of how I got started as a gardener.

This Clematis cirrhosa began flowering in early autumn, climbing through the lower branches of the crab apple tree. Hard winters mean that it doesn't fulfill its full winter-flowering potential here in Durham, but it's a strking plant in autumn.
My first job when I left school was taking Chrysanthemum cuttings in a nursery so the scent of Chrysanthemum sap brings back memories.
Borlotti beans are one of those vegetables that are visually attractive as well as being productive - great for adding to stews in autumn. They need a long growing season and the pods are slow to mature so I have to plant them as early as I can in spring - and keep my fingers crossed that we don't get any late frosts.

Autumn-fruiting raspberries are just about the most productive fruits in the garden, producing fresh berries right up until November - and jam that lasts through the winter. This year we picked about twenty pounds and the blackbirds had their share too. They are less prone to raspberry beetle infestations that the varieties that fruit in summer.
The weird African horned melon fruit that I grew in the greenhose sat in the fruit bowl for a long time until I plucked up the courage to eat it. It's slimy pulp tasted like cucumber with a dash of lime juice. Refreshing. I could grow to like it.
With autumn approaching insects like this seven-spot ladybird were searching for places to hibernate. Not much hope of squeezing into the small spaces in this teasel head, but many hibernate in the leylandii hedge, that provides evergreen shelter.

Everything is going to seed - food for the garden birds in winter
In the greenhouse there are hollyhock seedlings, which are destined for the back of the border next summer. The Cymbidium orchid on the bench at the end will remain in the greenhouse until the end of autumn - it needs a drop in temperature to stimulate flower bud formation - and it will flower from January onwards.
Living stone plants Lithops in the conservatory flower from late summer onwards. The swollen leaves mimic pebbles. They'll need to be kept bone-dry through the winter, otherwise they'll rot away.
Biennials, like this caper spurge Euphorbia lathyris (growing up through golden-leaved feverfew plants) have come to the end of their first season's growth and will flower next year. This plant has exploding seed pods that hurl seeds around the garden. I've only ever sown the seeds once, about twenty years ago - since then self-sown seedlings have produced these weirdly geometrical plants every year. Caper spurge plants bleed white latex - liquid rubber - when they are damaged and they are said to deter moles.
The autumn of 2010 was a memorably  long, slow, mellow one.......
.... spindle Euonymus leaves turned crimson....
... Fothergilla produced fiery shades of yellow and red....
... the Japanese maples were particularly fine....
.... and even the apple tree foliage produced a fine display of colour, with leaves remaining on the trees for much longer than usual...
When the beech foliage began to turn brown in late October hedge cutting - my least-favourite job - couldn't be put off any longer.........
... but it had its interesting diversions, uncovering nests of blackbirds, a song thrush, a wren and a goldfinch - testament to a successful breeding season for some of the garden's other residents.


  1. Thanks for solving a mystery for me Phil. Every year I get lots of self-seeding Euphorbia lathyris appearing in my (Durham) garden and have always wondered what it is. I'm always struck by its architectural qualities. I recognised it immediately as soon as I saw your photo. I think it's "lathyris" by the way, with an 'i' instead of a 'u'.

  2. Hi Dougie, I've always been fascinated by the plant because of its geometry and exploding seeds - you can hear them fly apart with a loud 'crack' on a hot autumn day. Thanks for spotting the typo. Cheers, Phil

  3. Hi,
    I enjoyed the recent radio 4 series but sadly missed the spring (2) episode. Any chance of hearing it? It seems to have gone from the iplayer.

  4. Hello Diane, They've all gone from iPlayer now and I don't know whether they'll be rebroadcast in the future. Thanks for your kind comment. Best wishes, Phil Gates