The quick & the dead

There’s a lot of rot in the garden at this time of year, and that’s no bad thing. I visited Waterperry Gardens at the weekend, where the ghosts of this year’s herbaceous perennials are taking their final bow.

Many gardens close to the public at the end of October, and remain that way until Spring. No doubt this provides a period of respite from being trampled upon by the hoards, which is all very well and very practical, but something of a shame for people like me, who enjoy nothing better than wandering about an autumnal garden as it folds back in upon itself. Spring is unsurpassed for optimism and vigour, summer for its finery and the kind of louche decadence that characterises August and September, but if you can’t bring yourself to enjoy the fading grandeur of the borders in autumn then you’re missing out.

A golden carpet of hornbeam leaves at the start of the River Walk

Finding myself in and around Oxford this weekend, I was delighted to discover the Waterperry Gardens is open all year round, with the exception of the week between Christmas and New Year.

Waterperry has many points in its favour – a mixed double border which stretches on endlessly, a walled garden, presently in the process of being completely renovated, a fabulous rose garden, a riverside walk, arboretum, canal, amphitheatre, yew henge and miles of tightly clipped evergreen hedging – but one of the key features for me is the presence of plant labels. Included here no doubt due to the history of the garden as a learning resource for the horticultural school, established by Beatrix Havergal in the late 1920s and continuing to the present day, the issue of labels in a public garden can be a controversial one but, for those of us whose enquiring nature trumps our plant knowledge, they provide a welcome point of reference. Particularly so now when much of the vegetable contents of a bed could be described as less al dente, and rather more, puree.

Mush. The remnants of hostas and hardy geraniums

But what marvellous mush this is! I realise I might be in the minority in finding the process of plant decomposition fascinating, but I love the very notion that, just as half the world believes the great outdoors has slowed to a standstill, various enzymes and fungi, bacteria and detritivorous beasties are at their very busiest, breaking down old plant matter and converting it into usable material for the garden in the months to come. This is circle of life stuff – a moment where the quick and the dead occupy the same space, both geographically and temporally. It’s about nourishment, about soil, and for me it’s where gardening begins and ends. There's a brief spell as the herbaceous border collapses inward when you can catch all this in situ before the efficient gardening team fetch away the remains of the plants to the compost heap, clearing space for mulches and manure. 

Tough customer. The remains of the persicaria’s can be a bit stringy, but a large, well managed compost heap will break them down with surprising ease

The dishevelled foliage of a tree paeony with architectural phlomis seedheads. 

Once the beds have been cleared, the evergreen hedging will provide both continuity and structure in the winter garden, coming to the fore as the herbaceous plants gather strength below ground.

For now, they form a magnificent backdrop to the skeletons of plants still standing. 

The cardoon Cynara cardunculus, always a presence at this  point in the border

There is beauty in extreme old age. Do you fancy you are elderly enough?

It’s not all drabs and muted hues. Admittedly given a boost by the slanting autumn sun, there are some vivid flashes of colour to delight the eye of the garden visitor, from the red and gold combination of cornus and miscanthus to the shocking violet of Symphiotrichum novae-angliae 'Purple Cloud'. 

And even where the colour has faded, there's still plenty of textural interest to be had in the combination of plants. 

I don't kid myself that this Mush Watch will ever catch on, with gardens becoming as busy in autumn and winter as they are in summer. Which, if I'm honest, I'm rather glad about from my own point of view, offering as it does the chance to experience the wonder, tranquility and quiet energy of the garden at the end of the year in relative peace. 

The water in a stone birdbath reflecting Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna

With thanks to Pat Havers, Head Gardener at Waterperry, for her kindness in making time to show me around on a Sunday. And for the cake and laughter.