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There’s a strange man

In my garden

With top hat and tails

He is looking rather pale

He’s been standing there

For some time now

Just standing and staring

And looking all around

He very often smiles

But doesn’t often frown

The squirrels and the fox’s

All adore him

As they pass by

He lifts his hand

To wave at them

And smiles to say goodnight

Thomas and Gillian Sims

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Magical: live in the moment with aconitums, asters and grasses such as calamagrostis

Magical: live in the moment with aconitums, asters and grasses such as calamagrostis 
 

A sunny autumn border makes this time of year much more enjoyable than a garden full of prematurely “tidy” brown soil. Rather than an early bedtime, think of this season as a planting opportunity to be grabbed with both hands; not only is there a rich palette of grasses and perennials to be explored, but the crystal clear light of autumn adds jewel-box sparkle to herbaceous borders. As the sun sinks lower, it slants through airy stems picking up texture, silhouette and movement in fading light. When frost arrives the seed heads sparkle and, if you’re lucky, hungry flocks of finches frisk through.

Now, of course, is the ideal time to plant, so pick a site that will be spotlit by the low sun and visit some well-planted autumn gardens for inspiration (see box). You need to plant in threes at least, and balance those dominant golden yellows with strong foxy reds, purples, pinks, mulberries and deep blues. This prevents a late-flowering scheme from taking on the bilious look of piccalilli. Autumn is also daisy time, and the aster family is invaluable. Long before flowers appear, the tiny buds, the black stems, the whorls of leaf that unfold from sheathed cigarillo-like stems hold the eye.

The daisy flowers, like spinning saucers, tend to face heavenwards as they wait for a late butterfly or two, and they need contrasting shapes to prevent monotony – vertical spikes and spires, airy wands, umbels and bobbles. A grassy backbone is an essential too, because grasses add movement and unite your planting.

Spikes and spires

Connect ground to sky with spikes and spires, such as those of the September-flowering, rich blue monkshood bred by Georg Arends in 1945: Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’. The spires have black-lashed flowers in delphinium-blue supported by glossy foliage. And this one is fashionably late to flower, following ‘Spätlese’, ‘Kelmscott’ and ‘Barker’s Variety’. Aconitums flower in shade, but deadhead them to prevent inferior seedlings from taking hold. Be aware they are toxic, particularly the root, as the common name, wolf’s bane, indicates.

Other spikes, such as Veronicastrum virginicum, have faded now, but the five-feet-high tapering seed heads and black stems of ‘Fascination’ look magical in low light. Waist-high verticals placed towards the front work well, too. These might include late-flowering red hot pokers, such as Kniphofia rooperi, which come through winter even in my cold garden. The warm-orange heads are well-spaced and crisp in outline.

Mopheads and bobbles

Modern planting is airy by nature, so cloudlike heads, light umbels or bobbles should be part of the mix. In fertile ground the damson-red Eupatorium ‘Riesenschirm’ will reach six feet, and its dark stems and whorled foliage are a bonus earlier in the year. Vernonia fasciculata, an aster relative known as smooth ironweed, provides an irregular puff of violet, and both set off Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’.

Puffs of paler smoke emerge from Selinum wallichianum, and its bright green lacy leaves and purple sheathing are prominent for months. I am also fond of Thalictrum lucidum for its lime-yellow down which contrasts with the high-gloss, lance-shaped herringbone of leaves. Add a late sanguisorba, ideally ‘Cangshan Cranberry’, with maroon bobbles that darken into winter.

The shorter Verbena hastata f. rosea lasts well into autumn, with spires of tiny violet-purple flowers that branch into a candelabra arrangement. But the airiest of all is the tall Althaea cannabina, a wiry mallow with small raspberry-eyed pink saucers threaded along the stems intermittently.

Dazzling daisies

Every gardener should grow the three-feet-high bushy aster ‘Little Carlow’, with lavender-blue flowers that appear from red buds like a gas torch. Aster laevis ‘Calliope’ has paler, slightly ragged daisies, but it’s really grown for its substantial black presence. The floppier ‘Vasterival’ tends toward pink but the sooty foliage and buds flatter the confetti-coloured flowers.

Use yellow as your spinning thread but do opt for tight clump-formers such as the green-coned Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Herbstsonne’ and the lemon-yellow sunflower Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, rather than the rabid spreaders. Like all sunflowers, the latter will chase the sun, so place it carefully and find dusky partners for both. I also like the cool-lemon daisy Ratibida pinnata which droops its petals in a swoon. Commonly known as the yellow cone flower, this can flower in July following an early spring, but normally it comes later. Finally, find room for a brown and yellow front-of-the-border daisy (such as Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’ or Rudbeckia tricolor) and some echinaceas. ‘Fatal Attraction’, a black-stemmed Day-Glo pink, is the flashiest.

Transparent grasses

The following grasses are well-behaved and don’t run, or self-seed to nuisance levels in Britain.

Stipa gigantea, a tall golden oat grass, is early season but keeps a skeletal presence as it forms its Roman fountain of golden sparks. A tendency to untidiness can be fixed by removing ungainly stems.

If you’ve room enough, the July-flowering toetoe grass from New Zealand, Cortaderia richardii, will produce one-sided feathery awns in shades of natural wool, above grey-green, sword-sharp foliage. Both shine in low light.

Cast an airy veil with Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’, which provides a mist of darkish beads. Tall molinias always have subsp. arundinacae in their title, but they vary greatly in form and are often wrongly named. Use a specialist nursery (see box). If you can’t find ‘Transparent’, grow Molinia ‘Karl Foerster’ instead. Also make use of the upright Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, its stems rise like a rocket heading to Mars.

Miscanthus sinensis is the most essential of all grasses, although some varieties are grown for foliage, not their plumed flower. The fine-tined, variegated green and cream ‘Morning Light’, for instance, and the thicker leaved brash white and green ‘Cosmopolitan’ are for foliage. My favourite, with light green leaves subtly banded in gold, is ‘Pünktchen’, but even in good summers the flower heads are hardly noticeable here. ‘Ferner Osten’ does produce lots of wine-red plums, although these will turn mink-brown within three to four weeks, whatever the weather.

If you’ve never grown a miscanthus, the most reliably floriferous is ‘Silberfeder’, which performs in cool and more northerly gardens. Add a pennisetum to curtsy at the front of the border; the pale brown caterpillars of ‘Hameln’ survive bad winters in my cold garden. Finally, add the silky feathers of Stipa brachytricha, again at the front, as their mauve heads pick up the colour of almost every aster.

By threading grasses through your late-season borders you’ll find that the dying of the light has never looked more beautiful.

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