As October turns into November and then into December, the spirit of the gardener often sinks to a seasonal low. The leaves have fallen from the trees and all too often the garden is a brown and soggy mess.
Autumnal prairie boarder
There can be something to admire though, and that is the huge range of seed heads which garden plants leave behind after their flowers have long since finished. These are joined by the seed heads of the wide range of ornamental grasses we now have available.
Before I go any further I had better deal with the objection that is often raised – how often I hear people say “but everything in my garden gets wet and then a storm blows it all flat”. True, wet and windy autumn weather soon reduces many garden plants to mush. Most grasses however do stand such weather very well and there are some flowering plants which also have physically very strong stems and in my experience cope well too.
Dipsacus fullonum (teasel)
Certain biennials such as teasels (Dipsacus fullonum) and mulleins (Verbascum spp.) are very resilient, and since they usually self-seed well, they keep going well from year to year. Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea), perform similarly, and a forest of the tall and narrow seed heads of the foxglove relative Digitalis ferruginea on a misty morning can be a mysterious and dramatic site. Amongst annuals, the rounded heads of opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) and love-in-the-mist (Nigella damascena) look good and stand well too.
Perennials tend to vary, both in the quality of their seed heads and how well they stand. I tend to do a two-stage clear up, removing all the messy mushy stuff in November leaving behind the strong and good-looking ones until a final late January clear up. Iris sibirica with its rich brown seed heads on sturdy 80cm stems is a favourite, Acanthus spp. look majestic until about Christmas, Echinacea purpurea heads look darkly attractive for a while, although they disintegrate as they gradually lose their seeds, while Astilbe spp., especially the upright Astilbe chinensis, look good in groups and are strong enough to withstand quite heavy snow too.
The all-time winner though is Phlomis russeliana whose candelabra heads – whorls of old flower bases arranged up a very sturdy 80cm stem, stand all weathers; the plant is evergreen too, one of the few perennials which never really has an off-day.
Dark seed heads like the phlomis or echinacea look particularly good against soft wispy grasses – the contrast is a winner in the November garden. At this time of year grasses can be magical, but only if the late afternoon sunlight can hit them at the right angle – when varieties of Miscanthus or Molinia can glow with a radiance that I think is as good as anything in the garden in June. As well as looking good, winter seed heads are a good food source for birds, so as well as admiring late-season beauty, we can do the rest of creation a good turn too.
Noel Kingsbury is a garden writer who’s best-known for his support of ecological planting.