Wednesday 18th September 2019
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Words: Steffie Shields
Featured in the September 2019 issue

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Steffie Shields focuses on low maintenance shrubs for heart-warming autumn colour.

Looking out of the family room at the small Indian bean tree, Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’, known as ‘Golden Catalpa’, acts as a beacon on the greyest of days! Come early summer, an explosion of dramatic foliage makes a brilliant contrast to the darkening, copper beech tree beyond. Lately, comma butterflies have taken to basking on its giant, heart-shaped, acid yellow leaves, before taking flight as if from a launchpad. My sister Sue gave us this ‘sunshine on a tree trunk’ when we first moved in. She is now resident in the Cayman Islands, where this year Mike and I were fortunate to celebrate our Golden Wedding with the family.

Our house, on the edge of the village, sits in the middle of a 2/3-acre plot, with garden wrapped round four sides, overlooking fields. Moving in 1999, we inherited some excellent roses, a peony tree and an uninspiring assortment of bog standard shrubs, typical of 1960s and 1970s gardens: forsythia and flowering redcurrant, philadelphus, St John’s Wort, snowberry, pyracantha and cotoneaster, together with a field boundary of hawthorn and common black elderberry. To my delight, there were a couple of Amelanchier trees. One sadly succumbed a few years ago. The remaining superstar still performs, elegant white blossoms every spring, giving way to small, dark red berries in summer, and glorious leaf colour every Fall.

Over time, and with tips from other gardeners well used to chalky soil, we have introduced some notable shrubs. I am ever grateful to Gwen Grantham, a founder member of Lincolnshire Gardens Trust, and one of the county’s best plantswomen. I remember when she first walked me around her wonderful Walcot garden before meandering into a small area of woodland, her personal arboretum. She stopped to recommend an insignificant shrub with dark green leaves, a spindle tree. Her enthusiasm painted a picture in my mind, conjuring up fabulous early autumn colour. Then strange, eye-catching candy-pink capsular fruits appear, their four lobes later splitting to reveal bright orange seeds, dangling ornaments for bleak midwinter. I do not regret investing in this precious gem of a shrub.

Legend has it that Henrietta, Lady Luxborough invented the word ‘shrubbery’ describing all her planting efforts in a letter (1748) to the poet William Shenstone. Rural ornamental gardening exploiting a variety of shrubs was first introduced in the middle of the 18th century as nurseries grew on account of increasing travel and imported plant introductions. In Warwickshire, Lady Luxborough an avid gardener, like Gwen, was one of the first in this country to develop an ornamental farm at Barrells, or ferme ornée, said to have ‘been the practice of some of the best geniuses of France’.

Our Millennium garden had some ‘good bones’ but was overgrown and neglected. So I dreamed of a stylish, rustic, miniature ‘pleasure ground’ for the 21st century with explorative walks winding from the rear of the house through the orchard, and along a layer of shrubbery along the east behind the summerhouse, as if the shady edge of a wood, leaving the lawn south and west wide open to the sun and edged with flower borders. Slowly and patiently working with nature’s moods and seasons, we began by introducing beech hedges to enclose some corners, and winter-flowering Viburnum x bodnantense for clusters of miniscule, rosy-pink flowers on naked stems, offering a surprising fragrance on the breeze. A hazelnut was a must, purely to bring back childhood memories of catkins and kernels. The garden has mellowed into a series of relaxed, picturesque views, while I have taken up painting! (see page 118 for the Tinwell Art Group Exhibition, ‘Sense of Place’, Stamford Arts Centre 22nd Sep–3rd Oct).

Three painterly shrubs are worth venturing out to inspect and photograph, come September, their dappled leaves filtering both wind and light. Cotinus coggyria ‘Grace’ earns her name, a fast-growing, excellent hybrid between the American smoke tree Cotinus obovatus and Cotinus coggyria ‘Velvet Cloak’. Her leaves light red in spring, darkening in the summer to plum, brushed by enormous clusters of soft, frothy pink flowers, that look like smoke from a distance. Her red, orange and golden autumn hues create a joyous mosaic when back-lit by early morning sunshine.

A smaller, slow-growing, Cotinus coggyria ‘Golden Spirit’, the first golden-leaved smoke bush, requires little cutting back or maintenance. Its golden and limey summer tones start turning, come September, to colours of fire. Thirdly, Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’ does not live up to its devil name. This good-looking, multi-stemmed, graceful deciduous shrub is easy to grow and can be cut back to the ground in early spring if a more compact shrub is preferred. Its deep burgundy leaves are reminiscent of maple foliage and echo the copper beech towering above. Appealing clusters of pale pink flowers are born on sprays, later developing fascinating, textured reddish-maroon seed heads. I amused myself by planting the Judas tree Cercis siliquastrum, nearby.

The latest craze, ‘Wilding the garden’ has increasingly excited the gardening press these last few years. Wildlife experts keep encouraging us all to create meadows in our gardens and parks in order to mimic local natural environments, all for the sake of the birds, bees and insects. As we look out over surrounding country pastures, there is no drive or even need for a wildflower corner, as all manner of bees and butterflies a plenty raid the flowers in my borders.

Wild gardens are often left with hedges unclipped and grass unmown to allow wildlife to prosper. I must confess this emphasis on wilding has me worried. This year as the summer progressed, the grassy areas in local town streets remained for a long time un-strimmed and messy, seemingly excused for the sake of wildlife (or rather council budgets?). This fad does not suit urban settings: the public park, the roundabout, or the verges of our towns and villages. Wildlife gardening is perfectly fitting in country parks such as the flourishing Queen Elizabeth II Park in Grantham. Even wildlife gardens need subtle management.

Last year was a bad year for butterflies, whereas this year has seen a marked increase. I remain an optimist. Inevitably Mother Nature will find a way to prosper and take over, given half a chance. Many myths and legends stem from her fluctuating lifestyle. Shrubs add form and colour but, as evidenced by this summer’s copious sun and rain encouraging a ‘wild’ amount of growth, they do require control, occasional cutting back and mulching with leaf mould. Shrubs suit my kind of natural, not too rigid gardening, aiming to have framed views from my windows that are as pretty as a picture. ‘Keep all in view very neat,’ Capability Brown used to instruct his team.

Always more to learn, more to plant, so why not join me on 16th September at Lincolnshire Gardens Trust’s visit to The Fern Nursery, in Binbrook, Lincolnshire LN8 6DH. My husband and I feel blessed by our rural idyll, amongst a picturesque medley of shrubs and golden roses, together with an abundance of wildlife and fascinating ferns!

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