Colour in a dark time

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
October 2021

Steffie Shields finds inspiration in October gardens.

Last year, a Channel 4 TV series, Grayson’s Art Club, brought gentle humour and colour to our lockdown screens. The multi-talented, flamboyant Grayson Perry and his delightful wife Philippa, who is also an expert potter, were unexpected, endearing media stars. Besides their shared enthusiasm for creating their own art, their joyous fascination with the works of other creators, whether professional or amateur, proved a weekly tonic. Their warm-hearted compassion, coupled with a desire to champion support for NHS staff at the height of the Covid crisis, also helped many viewers to endure this darkest of times.

Recent dreary days this August, and into September, have dragged by indefinitely dampening drive, even if life appears, slowly, to be returning to normality. Can you remember a summer like this one, just when the majority of us have been forced to ‘staycation’ at home? If the size of our Victoria plums is anything to go by, we should sympathise with farmers and nurserymen. This strange weather and lack of sun must have impacted negatively on most plants and trees. If this is climate change, the worry is, how are we going to adapt and prevent our mental health declining? After all, a longing for light and stimulating colour is a very human craving.

Recently, a garden photographer friend, James Kerr, who is also a gifted abstract artist, contacted me. A member of a Cotswolds group of artists, he was giving me a heads-up about an exhibition they are mounting this month entitled: ‘Colour in a Dark Time’. This news set me thinking. Our gardens in October are in fact the gateway to three bleak winter months as days shorten. The intensity of light is on the wane.

My ailing computer at the repairers has added to my melancholy. Hence I have been forced to scroll through past years’ October photographs on hard drive and iPhone albums, searching for inspiration to share with you. A photo of a landscape artist’s palette in the friendly Tinwell Art Group intrigued me, reflecting the same colours currently in my garden. In choosing paints to get going on her composition, she had somehow absorbed and opted for the milder tones of this season. No pillar box red here, a luscious dollop of deep, velvety crimson reminds me of the David Austin Rose ‘Munstead Wood’, much-loved in my semi-shade border, especially this month. Named for her Surrey home, as a tribute to the celebrated Edwardian gardener Gertrude Jekyll, this bears lighter coloured outer petals, its cups getting shallower as it ages, offering a strong, old rose fragrance with touches of blackberry, blueberry and damson. Jekyll was renowned for her planting palette in both dynamic or subtle colour combinations depending on light or shady situations.

What will help lift the mood, as soft early morning autumn mists float across our horizons? What particular colour do I associate with October? Pink! Yes, rich, shocking-pink, South African bulbs, Nerine bowdenii, are luckily hardy enough to survive Lincolnshire winters if planted in a warm, well-drained, sunny border, ideally up against a west-facing wall.

This variety is also known as the Guernsey lily. Nerines have been growing on this Channel Island for over 300 years! Now my grand-daughter, Emily, was born in Guernsey and happens to adore pink, like many a young girl. So when my nerine flowers start peeking, I get an uplift, an extra flood of fond memories. Their delicate sprays of pink flowers with recurved petals on erect, leafless stems are so strikingly different. Nerines make excellent, elegant cut flowers. After flowering, developed, congested clumps are easily divided to spread in swathes along the back of a border.

Normally, at this time, before refreshing my containers, I plant out last year’s spent tulip bulbs random fashion out in the orchard area. They rarely grow with the same vigour as bright newly bought tulips. Fingers crossed, they will rest, recharge and naturalise over time.

It is pleasing to imagine, come May a surprise, happy-making ‘dolly mixture’ will spring up, dotted amongst clouds of cow parsley between the fruit trees. However this year, owing to a helpful suggestion from a young Gardeners’ World viewer, this annual routine will be diverted. My collection of last spring’s tulip bulbs will be tossed all together into a rustic, old wheelbarrow and covered with at least four inches of homemade compost, a much less back-breaking task. I cannot wait to see the show!

Tulip ‘Pink Clearwater’, an eye-catching coral-pink, a large Triumph variety on grey-green stems, was the firm favourite in 2020, and decidedly sophisticated. Tulips are easy to handle, easy to grow. If seeking inspiration, the expert Sarah Raven offers splendid unusual co-ordinated colour combinations.

Despite our ever unpredictable weather, rest assured, ‘new to you’ tulips will deliver colour harmony. Put them in a generous group in fresh compost in large pots near the windows of the house, to brighten the scene even in the rain!

Now this gardener is no real lover of dahlias, mainly owing to a phobia of earwigs since childhood. However, in this tougher time for all of us, these gay flowers that originate from Mexico seem to have become fashionable and do perform reliably well right up until the first frosts. I share with you here a gorgeous dahlia. Both the name ‘Pooh’ and the dazzling orange-red petals are sure to delight and amuse.

This tall ‘Collarette’ type of dahlia is popular, and rewarding with prolific blooms – perfect for pollinators. I discovered it, quite by chance, growing in the heart of Stamford in the beautifully-tended churchyard of St George’s, said to be the original church of the Order of the Garter.

The ring of small, golden yellow petals in the heart of this flower certainly makes for an appropriate, if unexpected, decoration for the setting.

Stamford’s Burghley House comes to mind, when thinking of eye-catching trees that feature this month, a great time to get out for an exploratory walk in the ‘Capability’ Brown park. I still remember, one morning a few years back, being stopped in my tracks by a stunning American oak tree, Quercus rubra.

One needs plenty of room in a large garden to be able to plant this fabulously ornamental, orangey-red-leaved specimen, but I recommend a small tree chosen by Brown for incredible, early autumn colours, specifically to lift a gloomy corner of Blenheim, beside his Great Cascade – the medium-sized, Rhus Typhina, commonly called Staghorn Sumach. Garden designers tend to ignore it, perhaps unfashionable for its suckering tendency. Yet it was seen in virtually every suburban garden, following WWII, another horrible, dark time. Now, to cheer yourself up, please look at my photographs – and keep gardening !

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Calling all UK young artists!Doddington Young Sculptor Exhibition Doddington Hall and Gardens, Lincolnshire invites submissions from UK-based sculptors and 3D artists, aged under 30, for an exciting new open exhibition to be held this summer. Doddington is looking for pieces to be exhibited in the historic working Kitchen Garden, which complement the Garden and its surroundings. The Doddington Young Sculptor Exhibition will run alongside the main bi-annual Sculpture at Doddington exhibition and is an opportunity to exhibit alongside some of the finest contemporary sculptors selected from across the country and further afield. Prizes: 1st prize – £750, 2nd prize – £250Submission deadline: Sunday April 21st 2024Further details about eligibility, terms and conditions can be found at: apply, please email your submission as a PDF document to ... See MoreSee Less