Ragley Hall Gardens, Warwickshire
PUBLISHED: 09:47 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:33 20 February 2013
Summer's gaudy flowers have faded, it's time to enjoy the gentler shades, and the wildlife, of autumn says Ross Barbour.
What happened to the summer? It appears to have flown by in a blaze of gaudy bedding and colourful herbaceous perennials. The roses are still managing to pop the odd flower but nothing like the amount of blooms they carried from mid-summer. All that work through Spring, sowing seeds, pricking off, potting on, and bedding out-staking, weeding and dead heading all now just a distant memory as the displays start to fade and go over. Was it worth it? Of course it was!
Creating colourful and interesting displays throughout the entire year is the main aim here at Ragley. But the fading season sometimes leaves things looking a little shabby. To solve this lack of interest through Autumn we have created a Prairie Garden. This naturalistic planting of erect buff and tawny grasses is intermingled with jewels of colour from perennials such as bright orange Crocosmia, golden yellow Rudbeckia Goldsturm, tall rich purple Echinacea purpurea and nectar-rich Sedum. Even into November and December this area will continue to stand proud with the airy seed heads of grasses Miscanthus Malepartus , Molinia Karl Foerster and Stipa gigantea holding up the skeletal remains of the summer season.
The gardens in general have been hard work, the weather has been against us and we have constantly been cutting grass and trying to keep up with the weeding, at least weve not had to do any irrigating. The Kitchen Garden has been exceptionally hard work this year. We just cant give it enough time and that has been reflected in the diversity and amount of produce available for harvesting. Nothing was sown through April and the beginning of May, and that left a big gap in July where the spoils were sparse. Even the tomatoes didnt get going until mid-August!
Things like lettuce, salad leaves, carrots and beetroot all need to be planted little and often, in succession, say every two weeks. This provides a steady supply of crops with no large gluts and if there is a disaster with one sowing its not long before the next one is ready. Nice and easy in theory but in practice . . . ! That said the chillies have been very good this year as well as courgettes. The potatoes have suffered from blight again but fortunately have had enough time to grow before we cut off the shaws (tops) and burnt them. Now they are quite happy sitting underground ready to be lifted when required.
This has been a fantastic year for ladybirds. It was almost as if every plant, in every part of the garden had either a ladybird or a ladybird larva on it on it somewhere. So no problems with aphids this year I wish they ate slugs and rabbits too! The prolific ladybird population was probably due to the population explosion of nettle aphids at the beginning of June. The air was thick with them on a warm still evening and having talked to others it was the same from Stratford to Redditch to Evesham.
Aphids overwinter on nettle patches and swarm around the fresh spring growth providing an early food source for ladybirds. Birds such as blue tits also take advantage of a sudden aphid explosion. We had pair of flycatchers nesting in one of the sheds again this year and I would sit and watch them in the evenings performing great aerial acrobatics catching the aphids for their young back in the nest.
The much maligned stinging nettle is one of our most important native plants for wildlife, supporting many species of insect including the small tortoiseshell and peacock butterfly larvae which feed in large groups hidden in silken tents at the top of the nettle stems. In late summer the seed produced when the nettle has finished flowering provides a valuable food source for many seedeating birds and small mammals.
I know its not really something you want in your garden, especially after I have told you that it harbours aphids, but at Ragley there are nettles right across the Estate. I positively encourage them in some areas of the gardens to help keep that natural balance. Sometimes it almost feels like nature is throwing everything it can at you to make things difficult, but why waste time and money on expensive chemicals when good husbandry and nature can be just as effective. Nature will always relent by doing something good, restoring your faith and the balance!
Autumn is a good time to be thinking about the wildlife in your garden, perfect for making some habitat piles for invertebrates to overwinter. Its that time of year when we have a bit of a tidy up, cutting back and clearing beds and borders, but try not to be too fastidious, leaving some plants with structure will look good through the winter and can be cut back in early spring. Bundles of cut stems placed out of the way will create great places for insects to hide in over the winter.
Ross Barbour has been head gardener at Ragley Hall for 10 years. The gardens include a prairie, meadow, rose garden, herbaceous borders and a winter garden. Ross can be contacted on 01789 762090 ext 147 or email firstname.lastname@example.org