Growing eye-catchers

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
October 2023

Steffie Shields highlights some of this month’s sensational lookers!

An eye-catcher, according to the dictionary definition, is something artificial created with a specific purpose, to ‘catch the eye’.

Whether classical column or rotunda, mock-castle ruin or brick-built tower, these singular attractions are typically found in stately home gardens and parks, often placed on a rise to take advantage of wider vistas beyond.

Each addition to our local landscapes attracts attention, becoming a memorable, pleasing focal point for passers-by.

Looking around county horizons, today’s travellers glimpse unusual, often intriguing, heritage. Belton’s hunting-lodge, ‘Brownlow’s Breeches’, is soon to undergo restoration. Dunstan Pillar, now diminished, was once an incredible inland lighthouse for those negotiating the moors at night.

Often there is so much more than meets the eye. Far from being a folly, such as James Wyatt’s magnificent Brocklesby Mausoleum resonates with deeper meaning. A more recent memorial, an imaginative combination of two different aircraft wings – one from a Lancaster, one from a Wellington – is dedicated to those lost serving in WWII Bomber Command. Lincoln’s ‘Spire’ makes a prominent eye-catcher, to pause and ponder in remembrance.

Fascinating follies
If you relish quirky tales of the unexpected, I recommend you track down this weekly blog online: or follow @follyflaneuse on Twitter.

This mystery lady has intentionally, over many years, enjoyed rambling all over the country, including Lincolnshire, camera in hand, to seek out follies and landscape garden ornaments. In truth, a research member of both Yorkshire Gardens Trust and the Folly Fellowship, the ‘Folly Flaneuse’ is no lay-about!

Her incredible detective work, trawling online newspaper articles, as well as family and art archives, uncovers the identity of a folly’s landowner, its origins, and the intention of his or her architect or designer.

There are revelations of family feuds and extraordinary happenings, together with illustrations of odd edifices in their heyday, and reasons for their decline or even demise.

If few people are in a position, these days, to build a monumental eye-catcher, there is always plenty of opportunity to grow one!

Here follows a few key plants in my October garden that make outstanding, living eye-catchers.

As days shorten this month, any ‘back end’ doldrums or prospects of winter cold are banished when I spy buds appearing on the erect stems of my nerine lily.

A flurry of wavy, pink curls will soon sparkle in early morning dew, or after a shower of rain. My immensely rewarding, fabulous nerine lily has been multiplying for more than 20 years, happy in its sunny, warm spot, against the west wall of our house.

Surreal umbels of sugar-pink flowers, each opening their enchanting, recurved segments, reveal protruding, delicate, velvet-tipped stamens. No demanding tender loving care is required, bar tidying away odd dead stalks or encroaching weeds.

Eye candy blooms
I often pick blooms to bring inside with happy memories of a retired RAF couple, Air-Vice Marshal and Mrs PG Chamberlain. He played a vital part in the use of radar to defeat night-bombers in WWII. Peter coined the word ‘boffin’ to describe inventive, high-powered scientists who were far from being back-room ‘boys’. He and his wife Peggy, a keen gardener, became dear friends, and gladly divided their huge clump of Nerine bowdenii. Their gift keeps on giving – my first eye candy!

When my granddaughter, Emily, was born in Saint Peter Port, I discovered that nerines are often called Guernsey lilies, having been cultivated on the island for over 300 years.

So now I love its fresh, blush rosiness even more. Such distinct pinkness might channel thoughts of ‘Barbie Doll’, with the recent cinema hit in mind, or even Barbara Cartland! No need to guess why I am also drawn to the elegant, paler Nerine ‘Stefani’ !

Despite its rich flag-waving, autumn colour, it appears the once common staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina, has fallen out of fashion. Few seem inclined to plant the golden false acacia, Robinia pseudo-acacia ‘Frisia’, popular for small front gardens, and equally ubiquitous in the 1960s and ’70s. I notice the attractive specimen gate-guarding Alford Manor House Museum is no more. Perhaps it succumbed to age or drought, which also put pay to my striking Cornus alba ‘Spaethii’.

Instant lift
If you have lost a splendid tree, or a darling shrub is on the decline, now is a good time to assess the quality of your eye-catchers. What single plant would give you, and your garden, an instant lift?

Many garden designers favour an East Canadian native tree known as Juneberry, Amelanchier lamarckii, owing to its spectacular spring haze of delicate, snowy-white blossom offset by bronze foliage. Come autumn, its spreading canopy, transformed in hues of orange and red, is certain to arrest the eye.

Perhaps you have heard the story of the celebrated artist JMW Turner arriving on varnishing day before a Royal Academy exhibition in London? Much to other artists’ surprise, he brought out his paintbrush to add a couple of strokes to his landscape painting, a final, inspirational touch of red.

This tale reminds me of the time when the late, great plantswoman, Gwen Grantham led me down her garden path to a small arboretum created together with her husband Geoffrey at Walcot Farm. She paused in a dappled clearing to introduce me to a little red spindle tree like no other. I was “bowled over”.

Consequently, Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ was one of the first eye-catcher plants I bought when we retired!

Purposely positioned and on view from the family-room window, most of the year it grows quietly on the edge of a small grove in partial shade and requires no pruning, its tiny white blossoms and narrowly ovate green leaves almost unnoticed.

Every October, from soft early morning light until dusk draws on, my strawberry- red fire bush sets the grove corner aflame. This Turneresque punctuation mark both gladdens eye and warms heart at breakfast, lunch and tea. As another great Turner, Tina used to sing, this spindle is ‘Simply the Best’.

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