Summer has burned itself out. The cooler weather, arriving suddenly for what we initially took to be a fleetng stay, appears to be in no great hurry to depart, hanging about the place like an unwelcome guest for the summer hols. Across the country central heating thermostats are clicking into life, woodsheds are beeing restocked, and cardies are being retrieved from the winter section of the wardrobe. While it may not yet be autumn, it surely feels nothing like high summer.

With my greenhouse thermometer revealing temperatures dropping daily to below six degrees (August appears to have mistaken itself for October), it’s little wonder that the plants in our gardens are responding. One of the first to be showing signs of the coming season is the spindle, the leaves of which are adopting an autumnal blush with what must be considered unwarranted alacrity by those who remain staunchly opposed to any mention of summer’s end – of whom there appear to be many.

Our native variety, the common spindle (Euonymus europaeus) favours neutral to lime-rich soils, and was until relatively recently a common sight in hedgerows and woodland margins (it was unceremoniously hoiked out along with miles of hedgerow for the dubious offence of harbouring wheat rust spores, along with barberry Berberis vulgaris, also now rarely seen au naturel). Its wood was valued for its toughness, and used for spindles (presumably for machines, rather than bannisters), and reputedly also for toothpicks, although due to its toxicity I am slightly dubious about this often-cited application.

The spindle’s deep green stems with characteristic striations
Winged protruberances on the stem of the native spindle
A small tree or large shrub of about three metres in both height and width, it’s most notable later in the year, at which time you might be enticed to aproach it by the fiery hues of its autumnal foliage. Once in close proximity, you can’t help but notice the fascinating, four lobed fruits, bright pink capsules splitting to reveal a single bright orange seed. During other seasons the plant is less remarkable from a distance, opposite lance shaped leaves (ovate/oval in the books, but rarely so in my experience, at least on the deciduous species) roughly an inch long a similar deep green to the stems, and small, creamy-green, four-petalled flowers in late spring. The stems themselves are characteristic of the genus, often appearing almost square in cross-section due to the presence of hardened tissue which grows laterally along the length. These corky protrusions are particularly pronounced on the winged spindle Euonymus alatus, also known as or burning bush for the richness of its autumn colour. My first encounter with a spindle was with a form of this variety, Euonymus alatus var. apteris, which I came upon in all its late season glory on one visit to the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle. On my way to the nuttery, I rounded a corner in at the bottom of the rose garden, and had to stand and gaze a while at this tall, fiery orange sentinel, glowing in the low autumnal sunshine against the dark green of the yew hedge. Quite memorable.

Euonymus alatus foliage in the process of turning
Another favourite is Euonymus 'Red Cascade', typically taller and more tree-like in proportions than the more spreading E. alatus, and with spectacular colouring, if less pronounced ‘wings’.

The four-lobed capsule of Euonymus 'Red Cascade'
How odd to think that the same family includes a whole host of evergreen shrubs, referred to pejoratively by some as ‘car park plants’, but recognised those with more sense and less of a stick-up the-bum as reliable, low maintenance plants which are guaranteed to perform in practically any location. Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald Gaiety' and the larger 'Silver Queen' are green and silver stalwarts, while Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald 'n Gold' introduces warmer tones. You may never believe that these could be relatives to the deciduous shrubs mentioned above – until, that is, you see the flowers and fruit.

For the fruit alone, I think it’s a worthy addition to any garden. The autumn colour of the deciduous varieties should be the clincher. Naysayers might point out that they’re reputed to be a host for the black fly that favour broad beans. So... don’t plant them in a hedge around your veg patch. Chances are, you’ll get the black fly anyway, so sow your beans early, and nip out the young tips. But don’t let this deprive you of a great native garden plant.

All parts of the spindle are toxic for humans to a level of discomfort, and rather more toxic to dogs, cats, and horses.

Telling tales

I’m beginning to suspect that the most successful people in any walk of life are the ones who tell the best stories. We all love a good story. It seems to be hard-wired into us in infancy, and we never lose that childlike trust to place ourselves in the hands of the storyteller and allow ourselves to be taken on a journey to an unknown destination. And who doesn’t still feel cheated on those occasions where the ending is given away before its alloted time? I think we all derive deep satisfaction from progressive revelation, and I’ve noticed this is something which the best gardens use to their advantage.

Think about it. In isolation, an open field is a pretty uninspiring thing. Leaving aside what it may have to tell us with its history or ecology, it’s a fairly passive, open, usually green space. Put a house on it, and it starts to get interesting. Enclose it, with hedges, walls or a fence, and a dialogue begins between the house, its garden, and that which lies beyond.

But I don’t believe many of us are really happy to leave things here. I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something slightly depressing about standing outside your back door and being able to take in three fences in one glance; although, on moving into a new home, it may sometimes be necessary to strip away the layers of random ghastliness bequeathed to you by the previous owners, just to be able to see what you have to work with. Once we know where our garden begins and ends, we don’t want to be constantly reminded of its limits. At some point, I think most of us have a need to put some mystery back.

“A garden revealed all at once is like a story told before it is started”, writes Dan Pearson, in his book Home Ground: Sanctuary in the City. I don’t think he’s describing a wish to create a network of “garden rooms”, partitioned from one another by brick walls or dense evergreen hedging. Rather, I think he identifies a need for some mechanism by which we can obfuscate the limits of our outdoor space, by distracting the eye and drawing a veil over the reality of its boundaries. And it’s a strange phenomenon that the less we have in our gardens, the smaller they can appear. Our fences and walls are the covers of the storybook; we have the opportunity to arrange organic and non-organic materials to compose the details of the narrative within.

There’s a magical moment in the gardens at Sissinghurst when, emerging through a gap in the hedge which runs parallel to the Lime Walk, you find yourself facing open fields. It’s totally disorientating – standing with your back to the garden, you are transported to another world, rooted in the middle of the Kentish landscape, being examined quizzically by a sheep. You’ve stepped beyond the book covers, and all you’ve just experienced seems strangely fuzzy, like trying to grasp the details of a dream on waking. Surely, this pastoral scene, unchanged for centuries, is reality? An about turn, and you’re through the hedge again and, through some kind of wizardry, back in the story.