I’m expecting a rainbow any minute now. The sun, just west of its meridian perch, backlights a curtain of fine drizzle. This could be April rather than October, were it not for the brown leaves accumulating on the paths. Many of the trees are completely bare now, and the wind, getting up strongly from the south-west, is whistling through their empty branches. The common rowan guarding the garden gate has flared reliably into striking yellow and orange every autumn, but not this year.
Clearing paths and borders of rotting leaves is a piecemeal affair. I dash out as soon as the sun breaks through the clouds, then dash back indoors as I get soaked by a sudden downpour or pelted with hailstones.
Rose hips as well as rowan, whitebeam, and cotoneaster berries are disappearing fast down the gullets of blackbirds and starlings, and I envy those gardeners who get to enjoy them a bit longer than a mere week or two. Holly berries which, for all I know are less tasty, usually hang on for much longer; often well into the New Year. So I was surprised to find my hollies all but stripped and I believe I know who the culprits are.
Large flocks of redwings have been descending on the garden and feeding to their hearts’ content. They belong to the thrush family and are omnivorous, raising unrealistic and foolish hopes in the gardener, expecting them to devour each and every slug. They prefer a vegetarian diet it seems, gorge on tree fruit, and take off as soon as I set foot outside the door. Getting a close look is rare, and I was delighted to spot a single bird sitting in the branches of a tea tree through my study window – what a beautiful creature with its plump thrush-spotted breast and belly, rusty red flanks and prominent pale yellow “eyebrows”.
Patches of intense blue still smoulder on the peat bed. Gentiana sino-ornata, the Chinese autumn gentians, came into flower early this year, September rather than October, with G. ‘Cairngorm’ just squeezing into the final days of August. This, as far as I can ascertain, is quite early for a G. sino-ornata cultivar, but I have it on good authority that even this rare manifestation of precociousness is not quite early enough for the Queen.
Ian Mc Naughton of MacPlants in East Lothian has been breeding gentians for some time and is the creator of the famous Berrybank strain. He’s now come up with the earliest of them all, Gentiana ‘Balmoral’ – one for the Queen to enjoy while she’s on her annual Scottish vacation.
It is protected by plant breeders’ rights, a highly frustrating state of affairs: I’ll be allowed to grow it in my garden, but won’t be able to propagate and sell it.
The foliage of the peat bed gentians is turning yellow and some of their flowers are decaying slowly, pale brown chalices amongst the remaining blue; more discerning and less lazy gardeners than myself probably dead-head their gentians in order to preserve their pristine looks for as long as possible.
I rather like mine warts and all and don’t object to a bit of decay; it’s all part of the natural cycle. There are some rather intriguing examples of it in the pond. Water lily leaves have turned into pale vegetable Rorschach tests, and their flowers, once pert and pink, now float just below the water’s surface, mysteriously intricate in their maroon dying.