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Words: Steffie Shields
Featured in the November 2016 issue

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Steffie Shields highlights trees for blazing November colour.

As the days shorten, we refuse to ‘rage against the dying of the light’, distracting ourselves with Halloween pumpkin lanterns, evening firework parties around community bonfires. In addition to the ritual ‘Remember, remember’ when gloomy veils of fog descend, or mist and curling chimney smoke rise, we should perhaps be plotting to give our gardens their chance to dazzle in the daytime.

November is the perfect time to plant shrubs and trees for heart-warming hues that glow when sun deigns to glance through the clouds. It can be difficult to decide which tree to choose amidst serried rows of young trees at your nearest tree nursery or garden centre. So study the photographs, take a note of the names of the stars I recommend. Keep your imagination focused on the fireworks, leaves glowing with every flaming tint, that could be in your garden next year. Nature injects this boost of energy with fleeting moments of uplift and visual pleasure, heightened by autumn’s low light and contrasting long shadow, before the inevitable Fall, and rakes and wheelbarrows appear.

Last November I spotted a spindle tree growing in a newly-planted hedgerow in Burghley Park. This is Euonymous europaea, a deciduous tree that can live to 100 years, native to the UK and across Europe, growing to twenty-five to thirty feet. Its hard, dense timber once made ‘spindles’ for spinning and holding wool, as well as skewers, toothpicks, pegs and knitting needles. Somehow this supposedly ‘lucky’ tree, even though very attractive to butterflies and insects, is seldom seen in gardens and seems to have been forgotten or sidelined by the imported wealth of exotics such as Japanese acers. As night temperatures drop come October, it is very first to turn colour in our miniature ‘arboretum’, perhaps the loveliest scarlet red of all trees. I love it so much I miss it once the leaves finally drop, but the candy-pink fruits hiding bright orange seeds are an unexpected bonus and continue ornamenting wintry bare branches like sparks from a Roman candle. 

Having lived in rented accommodation, (twenty-two different RAF married quarters in thirty-two years), it was a joy to be able to plant trees on moving into our own house on retirement. Of course I chose the common silver birch because it races away. After fifteen years it is as tall as the roof of the house. Its golden leaves on frail, trailing branches shimmer like showers of ‘golden rain’. To mark the Millennium, we planted an oak raised from a Grimsthorpe Castle acorn and an unusual, elegant Indian horse chestnut, Aesculus indica. I was pleased to note two splendid examples of the latter, in welcome either side of Kew’s main entrance walk, seventy to ninety feet, slightly smaller than the common horse chestnut. So this feature tree needs space. It makes a real feature on the edge of the garden opposite the kitchen window where I can enjoy its spectacular summer flowering ‘candles’. Come autumn winds, though its small seeds are no good for conkers. its finger-like leaflets on stalks wave like glorious golden palms.

My sister Sue, who lives in Florida, generously gave us three trees. The exotic catalpa has large, heart-shaped, limey-green leaves that brighten the greyest day like summer sunshine, especially later in the year turning yellow. I had no idea of the pleasure I would also experience every subsequent November from the other two: a Norway maple, Acer platanoides, tolerant of most soils and climate and a sweet gum, Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’. Bearing in mind ‘Capability’ Brown’s instruction to his gardening and forestry foremen, ‘Imagine the tree fully grown’, I chose a gap in the hedgerow for the quick-growing Norway maple, forty to fifty feet in maturity. When autumnal leaves morph from green to bright yellow, this maple makes a fine contrast to a nearby bronzed copper beech, and is as pleasingly comforting as a patchwork quilt.

The magnificent sweet gum grows more slowly. This stands erect to attention on the gravel drive to the west, a pleasing conical shape, now about twenty-five feet tall that might eventually reach fifty feet. The closest to a sugar maple tree, Acer saccharum, my sister could find locally she hoped it would be a fond reminder of our Canadian-born mother. Its palmate, glossy five to seven-lobed leaves turn every lavish shade of orange, crimson and plum to deep maroon and purple. The effect is fascinating late afternoon when backlit by sunbeams.

If you are still young and have plenty of patience, as well as time and space, then plant a tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, in full sun. This handsome, even stately, specimen tree may take twenty years to flower, but the unusual spade-shaped leaves will put on a festive, autumn show.

Planting a tree has to be the most rewarding job in gardening. A new introduction lifts the spirits and, as we watch the tree develop, changes our view for many years to come. We invest in the future and hope for the generations to come. However, if the urge to plant is not strong, the day is dank or chilling to the bone and you cannot be bothered, then I suggest you curl up by the fire with a unique little book by Jean Giano called The Man Who Planted Trees. You might just change your mind!

Often seeking solace after losing a beloved member of the family or a close friend, in planting a tree we add a layer of extra meaning to our garden. We brand the view, as well as our hearts, with memories of those we love. Remember, remember. So off to your nearest tree nursery, and set your garden alight by planting one or two new trees and, rather than dull russets and browns, be rewarded with stunning fiery colour to warm your heart next year and many more years to come.

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