Autumn at Killruddery by Head Gardener Daragh Farren

03/10/2017

Right now, Summer feels like a long time ago. For me, it passed in a blur, as it does most years, but this year, very definitely it feels as though it really flew by. We were of course pretty busy here in the Garden Department, but I think coped reasonably well with the demands of high season.

We had the usual incidents of a machine breaking down from time to time, occasional flurries of unseasonal weather, the scheduling of various events to navigate, but I feel this year, we had our work running fairly smoothly.
Summer is of course largely about maintenance, keeping lawn areas mowed and clipped, edges looking sharp, watching for watering, keeping on top of weed and pest control, ensuring nice crisp hedges and numerous other weekly/ bi weekly tasks. In summer, apart from at the very peak of maintenance time, you attempt to find little bits of time for non routine work, a pocket of planting here of there, a little bit of regeneration or freshening up in someplace or other…
I would be tentative enough about doing much planting during the summer months – anything planted at this time needs particularly careful monitoring, and so, planting tends to be minimal enough through summer, and takes place in key, easy to watch areas.

We did however get a couple of pockets of Meconopsis (M.grandis, M.betonicifolia) planted in early summer, as well as squeezing a small number randomly through some things like hostas, hellebores etc, allowing them to peep through foliage, producing their superbly striking blues. A few bit and pieces went in along the Venus walk too, woodland perennials mostly.
Like any garden, we have some problem spots where we’ve struggled to establish planting, and I dare say we have more than most. One such area is located above the old pump for the Rock, behind a large Rhododendron. It’s a bit dry, pretty shady, not especially large, but is in it’s own way a high profile spot, passed by many visitors. We have now planted this area with Strobilanthes, a sub shrub native to Asia. Not a particularly showy plant, but possessing of a certain charm, producing it’s slightly salvia like purple flowers late in the season. I’ve found it to be an adaptable plant, easily propagated by cuttings and asking little in terms of maintenance. I hope it will survive here… I feel somewhat hopeful, but time will tell.

At time of writing, the first of the Autumn colours have well and truly begun. A nice day in Autumn can really show the beauty of this time of year, and, when they fall all those leaves are of course of great value to your compost heap. Autumn of 2016 was a particular spectacle – we had some low temperatures, which really activated the pigments involved in producing good autumn foliage, and many dry, bright days, without many high winds, all of which conspired to allow a lasting, and very beautiful display.

 

Autumn foliage colour is a very variable thing. Sometimes, a plant that is known for it’s autumn foliage, may not produce the display you would hope for. Climactic conditions (as mentioned above) and in particular high rainfall, and environmental factors can be at play – for example higher nitrogen or high rainfall levels may inhibit pigment production, good sunlight will help produce vibrant colour. In fact, it’s speculated by some, that climate change will lead to much more spectacular autumn colour in a climate like ours – warmer, drier summers leading to greater sugar levels, leading to enhanced colour. Of course, the counter speculation is that this may be to an extent offset by milder, damper winters…

Genetic factors can enter the equation also. For example a group of plants raised from seed will have variation within their number. Some members will quite simply show over a period of years, that they produce superior colour to some of their ‘siblings’. Of course, knowing that sexual plant production – (seed), produces variation, and vegetative propagation (using a piece of a plant – cutting, division etc.) produces an identical clone to the parent plant, one should select the best performing subjects within a group, and if possible, use perhaps cuttings to raise new material.

We of course, hope for a beautiful autumnal display, while waiting with rakes, blowers, collectors to gather as many leaves as we can for composting. Leaves are one of the very few materials that will produce a really good end product without the addition of any other ingredient. A mass of only grass clippings becomes a sodden, smelly mess, toxic too. A mass of only leaves will produce a dark, friable, healthy compost. It’s also advisable to collect leaves for reasons of plant/garden husbandry – a wet, thick mat of leaves spending weeks on a lawn may kill and will certainly weaken grass, while excessive amounts of leaves entering a pond for example, may lead to a build up of decomposing organic material, promoting an unhealthy environment for plants and fish. Paths too will be more likely to become treacherous underfoot if a layer of soggy leaves adheres to the surface, particularly in the case of paving slabs or concrete.

Our bulb planting will as usual take place over the autumn period. I always buy through an Irish supplier, a wide array being easily available each year. I always feel that with the really reliable spring bulbs – there’s nothing more reliable than a daffodil…you will get some of the best value for money you can spend on your garden. Daffodils are virtually impossible to fail with…ok, so they could rot if damaged pre planting, or if they’re in an overly damp area, but by and large, they have an enviably low failure rate. Some of the lesser known bulbs you might see in a catalogue will have much more exacting requirements, and may not be for the out and out novice, but the trusty daffodil is always a good bet. I personally tend to favour ones that are a little more muted than some, leaning toward varieties with paler colouring or perhaps an elongated trumpet and more interesting structure. There are some really good multi headed options available too, and a range of flowering times and stem heights – these are the kind of considerations you might allow for when making your choices. Many bulbs will bulk up pretty quickly, producing little offsets or babies after a couple of years in the ground. Depending on bulb type and variety, the length of time till flowering size maybe achieved varies quite a bit from perhaps 2 or 3 years, to maybe 6 or 7. Best practice is to, perhaps every 3 or so years, dig up and divide your clumps, replanting without delay – maybe the simplest bit of plant propagation any of us could do. Do this after flowering has finished, or before bulb growth begins – i.e. by late summer/early autumn.

Other reliable spring bulbs that may well feature in my soon to be placed order are things like Cyclamen – very beautiful, pretty tough, and depending on species choice lots of different flowering times, Erythronium – look this one up, they’re fairly reliable and are excellent in a woodland type setting, Fritillaria – I’ll probably go for some F. meleagris but may also treat myself to some of the larger (and sometimes a little pricey) F. imperialis. I probably won’t be able to resist some Eranthis hymalis while I’m at it…the winter aconite will vie with the better known snowdrop as first flower of the new year.

Our Autumn work will also include some of the usual turf care operations, and vital tasks such as mulching. Already we’ve been highlighting some of our many specimen trees, particularly in the angles, by making more generous circles in the turf beneath – in a nutshell, removing the turf close to the trunk. This is something that really shows the tree off beautifully, but in addition, is advisable in order to avoid damage when mowing and to aid establishment and continued health, reducing competition for available nutrient and water, much of which will be absorbed by grass growing close to the base of an immature tree. Mulching is then more effective, and should be applied roughly equal to the spread of the outside of the canopy. Avoid piling organic matter against the base of the trunk – this can encourage disease and sometimes suckering.

Within a couple of days, as I write, we will close for weekdays, leaving just the weekends in October. It’s been a good open season for the garden, and on behalf of my staff – Ken, David and Vincent, and I, we’d like to thank you for visiting and hope you enjoyed your time here. Each year we try to improve the garden, getting it more right on some occasions than others, but always in the hope that our visitors, regular and otherwise get a little pleasure, peace or whatever they need on a particular day or visit, and hopefully leaving each time with a little more of an appreciation of what makes Killruddery the special place it is.

Daragh Farren – September 2017