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November’s gardening has been transformed. In Britain dahlias and bedding plants used to be blackened by frost. Flowers finished flowering in October except for occasional chrysanthemums. Clearing and cutting down began promptly. For yellow-flowered mahonias and pink and white hellebores we had to wait until late January.
Prompt cutting down has become contested. Seductive photos encourage gardeners to leave dying stems in their flowerbeds until early spring. Dead stems are said to sway in the wind and to harbour helpful insects. The tassels of dead flowers on grasses are considered beautiful. I still belong in the other camp, preferring to be rid of the top growth on other plants which turn black after valiant service when flowering in high summer. Michaelmas daisies are prime examples and I am a bigger grower of these daisies than of grasses turning brown.
I cut down whatever I can as soon as November’s weather permits. I love the sight of lightly forked bare soil awaiting winter between clumps of border plants which have been felled. Cutting is a satisfying job, making corridors of tidiness. Maybe your tall grassy miscanthus would sway in the wind, but I do not much care for it, even before late autumn rain defaces it.
I have started this year’s cutting with confidence but something is holding me back. It is not fashion: it is the shift in patterns of the weather. It has been so warm when it used to be frosty. Dahlias are still flowering. So are French marigolds and fuchsias. Salvias are having a third rush of flowers. There are roses, not just on long-flowering China roses. How can I cut back Japanese anemones when they are still flowering?
I have just been out to pick a mid-November bunch of flowers, none of which is available in florists. Magenta-pink Salvia involucrata is one of them, a tall salvia that is one of the hardiest. In June it looked dead to the base after the cold winter but it resprouted freely in July and is now as fine as I have ever had it. The clear yellow dahlia Glory of Heemstede is at the centre of my bunch. This free-flowering beauty is one to grow wherever double-flowered dahlias at a height of 4ft will fit in to a flowerbed. Dark blue monkshoods, or aconitums, are flowering near it with red Penstemon King George, another near-casualty of last winter.
In April I was vowing I would never again risk plants of marginal hardiness after the sharp winter had massacred them. I have already broken my vow. Once bitten, never shy; such is the truth of my gardening. It was mild in winter 2021-22, so why not again? I have replanted white-flowered Cistus palinhae, a lovely lowish-growing variety which died last January, and I have replaced almost all the dead hebes. Life without them would be too boring.
My top two stars are not gambles. One, White Dazzler, came through last winter with only a few signs of scorching on its elegant evergreen leaves. It is Choisya x dewitteana White Dazzler to be exact and I recommend it unreservedly for any garden which is not exposed to the harshest of northern weather. Choisyas are known as Mexican Oranges even though they produce no fruits and their flowers have none of the sweet scent of a citrus. The pungent scent in White Dazzler is the scent of its leaves when broken and rubbed. They remind me of gin.
This excellent shrub produces white starry flowers in late spring, a few more in summer and a final flush in autumn. When I bought mine, nobody was expecting it to be near its best in November, but the new non-autumns suit it. I picked bunches of flowers off two White Dazzlers only last week and thought yet again what an excellent choice they would be in two large pots on either side of a doorway. Unlike the flowers on camellias, their flowers do not go brown at the first sign of frost nor soggy in heavy rain.
A White Dazzler grows to about 4ft high and 4ft wide after several years, but light pruning after its spring flowering keeps it more compact. First, we had Aztec Pearl as an addition to the choisya family. White Dazzler followed, also with narrow leaves, but is smaller and more free flowering. Never try to cut it down in autumn. It is a shiny evergreen whose leaves reflect light prettily. It will, however, grow in light shade too.
So will my other November star, best known still as schizostylis, though botanically reclassed as hesperantha. If I followed that bossy slogan, “right plant, right place”, I would never have planted and enjoyed it: it is said to need a damp soil in semi-shade but I have no damp places in the garden. In fact, it grows well enough without damp and still produces a clump of thin green leaves and in autumn, stems of pink, white or scarlet flowers, sometimes rounded, always open-faced and single.
Variations abound, selected and named by their growers, but I am happiest with coccinea Major, a variety with big flowers of scarlet red, abundantly produced. One plant suffices as it can be divided each spring when it settles in and thrives. The stems of flower should be pulled free of the plant and used in vases indoors, where they last very well.
Thirty years ago, a schizostylis used to die away in early November. Mine are going strong this week, barometers of a milder autumn. They fit excellently into narrow beds below a wall in semi-shade, not the driest of the dry but one with enough exposure to rain to keep the plants happy. A bed below a house wall is not always suitable as the guttering above it keeps it too dry for a schizostylis to flourish.
Hotter summers are a strain for gardens, but longer warmer autumns are not. As I cut down blackened top growth I notice how the mild wet weather has encouraged yet another crop of annual weeds. If I left the borders uncut until early spring I would not notice these weeds while they are still easy to extract. Out comes the chickweed, in stay the dahlias which are flowering brightly.
Pick bunches of unexpected flowers from your garden and raise the November flower-count to a score or more. By Christmas will we be picking winter irises and enjoying the first shoots on narcissi? Unless the sequel is a drought all summer, give me more of it, an extension of the flowery season and a cheering alternative to good old holly and ivy.
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