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GARDEN LIFE: Finish the year with a flourish; JANET WHEATCROFT on how to hold back those long, dark days of winter.

WHAT a glorious time of year autumn is. There's just so much going on in the garden, with late flowers, berries, changing foliage, even butterflies and fungus, all combining in a spectacular last fanfare for the gardening year.

As a gardener, I'm keen on our flexible and consistent climate. In winter we don't have to endure the lacerating cold that many continental and American gardeners have to suffer.

But our winters are long and dark and anything we can do to kid ourselves that the gardening season is still up and running is okay by me.

It's not difficult to extend the flower-power of borders and beds so that the garden doesn't take on its depressing winter guise until St Andrew's Day at least.

It takes careful planning, but the payoff is worth it. So why not organise our gardens to provide that final burst of pleasure, with plants that come into their own when everything else is packing up for the year?

Just now, there's still plenty of summer stuff in flower in the borders. Many hardy geraniums - and campanula, sheared back after their first efforts and giving a welcome, lesser display. Phlox and penstemons will keep going for a few more weeks if regularly deadheaded.

But the best flowers at this time of year are the genuine late bloomers.

The big border sedums have been spectacularly good this year. Most gardeners know or grow the variety Autumn Joy and, although it's a common plant, it's one of my "must-haves" for the front of the border.

Handsome rather than graceful, it's got real presence from the time it pushes its rosette-like shoots through the earth in spring.

Its succulent, soap-smooth foliage looks good fronting summer flowers, but when it starts to form its great flat flower-heads it really comes into its own.

Stems, leaves and buds are a cool sea-green. In September the rich pink starry flowers appear, lasting for weeks before turning to crimson, then coppery-brown.

There are other good varieties. "Brilliant" and "Meteor" are excellent pinks and "Iceberg" is a cool and elegant white. The newish "Frosty Morn" has foliage variegated white and green and pale pink flowers. All are incredibly easy and quick from cuttings. They will even root successfully from a leaf cutting.

Most aconitums or monkshoods flower in early or midsummer, but one of the loveliest is the late-flowering Aconitum carmichaelii (also known as aconitum fischeri). Tall and narrow, it's perfect for the back of a border where its sapphire blue flowers will carry on right through October. It's perfect with the pinks and whites of annual cosmos.

Like all the aconitums, it's poisonous, but tucked away at the back of the border, surrounded by other plants, it's unlikely that anybody's going to eat it.

Some plants for this Indian Summer have true star quality. Alstroemerias come from South America and have an exotic, tropical look.

The big hybrids make a fine show in midsummer, but late-flowering Alstroemeria pulchella is much more refined. The narrow tubular flowers are delicately fluted, coloured a rich dark red, flaring out to a bright green margin.

This, like many South African plants that flower at this time of year, is hardier than we give it credit for. We assume that Scotland will be too cold for them, but parts of South Africa are mountainous, and many of the South American plants also come from quite high altitudes.

A prime example is Schizostylus coccinea which, although needing full sun, prefers moist air and a damp soil to flower well. It looks like a posh miniature gladiolus, with grassy leaves and silky cupped blooms of crimson, scarlet or pink.

Schizostylus coccinea "Major" is a lovely rich crimson, "Mrs Hegarty" a rose pink. "November Cheer" and "Viscountess Byng" are very late varieties, flowering well into November.

Some of the latest of all garden perennials are the chrysanthemums, and their pungent gingery scent is one of the true signs that winter is on the way. Sadly, many large-flowered varieties tend to dwindle in our damp climate.

The answer is to look out for the old cottage plants, grown for 100 years or more and not weakened by over-breeding.

"Emperor of China" is outstanding, with silvery-pink flowers produced into November and even beyond. "Mei-kyo" is a button-flowered pink, and "Dr Tom Parr" a pinky-brown.

Try them with that strange member of the lily family, Liriope muscari. This has glossy evergreen leaves and bright violet flowers like grape hyacinth.

Just as most plants are thinking about shutting down for the year, Arum italicum pictum is stirring into life. It gives me a special thrill to see the furled shoots pushing through the soil and opening spear-shaped leaves beautifully marbled in green and white.

The foliage is the point of growing this plant, though it does carry spathe-shaped flowers and club-like clusters of red-berried fruit. The leaves are a perfect companion for daffs and primroses when spring comes.

Sure, it leaves a blank spot in summer, disappearing completely. But it's worth growing this arum for the thrill of shiny new foliage nosing through a cover of fallen leaves in the last days of autumn.

Those slender green spirals are a welcome reminder that even when one aspect of the garden is beginning to decline, new life is always stirring somewhere beneath the surface.

PLANT OF THE WEEK: GLADIOLUS CALLIANTHUS

YOU might know this plant better under its old name of Acidanthera. Now back in the gladiolus family, it's one for folk who aren't keen on glads, or find them difficult to use effectively in the garden.

It's exquisite - more like an orchid than a gladiolus. From sprays of grassy leaves, long arching flowering spikes appear in late summer. In September, the first flowers open and continue to appear in sequence over many weeks.

Poised like butterflies on their slender stems, they're a soft milky white, enhanced by deep claret blotches at the throat. They're also sweetly scented.

Although the flowers bob gracefully with every breeze, they're tougher than they look and need no support or tying up. This cuts out one of the problems with big hybrid glads, which tend to lean drunkenly.

Coming from Ethiopia and Tanzania, the plant is, not surprisingly, tender. It will survive a mild winter in a sun-baked spot, but it's far better to lift and store corms.

Plant them in a sunny spot in late spring, placing them at a depth of six inches. Or start to grow them in pots for a slightly earlier flowering time. Several corms in a six- inch pot will plug gaps in a border where earlier flowers have gone over.

Two feet high, but taking up next to no room, the beautiful and graceful flowers make a classy addition to any garden. Make a note to yourself - buy corms next spring.

DOWN TO EARTH: A gardener's notebook

IT is no secret that I've got a blind spot when it comes to grasses. Fashionable they may be, but I can't see me throwing out a peony to make room for more grasses.

But I try to keep an open mind. I've planted some zebra-striped miscanthus and they show off phlox and dahlias to perfection. And that's the point about grasses for me. They're support-cast plants, like film extras who should never be sexier than the stars.

Last week I was in a hurry to plant up two small damp beds either side of my new terrace. At each corner I wanted something architectural that would look good all summer and be a restful contrast to smaller flowering plants.

My first instinct was to plant the statuesque gold-leafed hosta Sum and Substance, one of the few that colours better in full sun. But I've got it in at least three other spots in the garden and I'm wary of getting into a rut by using the same plants all the time.

I popped into the local garden centre and a handsome tall grass caught my eye. It had no label and my grasp of grass names is basic to say the least. I had the book at home and could easily look it up.

The Plantfinders Guide to Grasses revealed that it was not a grass but a bamboo (same family, different branch). Furthermore, it was the sort of bamboo called pleioblastus. Invasive, I seemed to remember. But maybe the variegated forms aren't as rampant.

More research revealed that although less rampant, it was not a plant for a small bed. Now it's been in a week, and is already putting out new shoots - culms is the technical term.

It'll have to be rehomed in a wilder part of the garden and I'll have to find something else for the terrace beds. That'll teach me to make impulse buys without doing my research first.

Roger Grounds' book The Plantfinders Guide to Ornamental Grasses (David and Charles 1998) is an excellent introduction to grass and bamboo.

GARDENERS' Q&A

Q I HAVE two 10-year-old apple trees and, for the last three years, one of them has produced disfigured and badly split fruit. What is it and how can I treat it?

A THE sample you sent me was pitted with black, scabby areas, split and dry. In short, a classic case of apple and pear scab. It's caused by a fungus, Venturia inaequalis.

If only certain branches, rather than the whole tree, are affected, prune out the damaged area this winter and burn the prunings immediately.

Next spring, begin a rigorous spraying programme, starting at bud-burst and repeating at two-week intervals. Pick a spray containing the systemic fungicide Myclobutanil.

Your other problem is to prevent the fungus infecting the other tree. Wipe pruning saws and secateurs with methylated sprits after use. As a preventative measure, spray both trees. You should be able to put the problem right over the course of next summer.

Q MY Christmas cacti have done well and never fail to flower, but I'm concerned about blemishes on the leaves. They start as small, raised patches, then spread to form small brown areas that don't grow with the rest of the leaf. What's the problem?

A THE leaves you sent me showed no signs of any pest or disease. I think the problem here is oedema and it affects many greenhouse plants, including tomatoes, begonias and cacti. It's brought about by overwatering and too-high humidity in plants that prefer drier atmospheres.

Excess water causes plant cells to multiply too quickly and then rupture, causing warts and papery brown patches. Moving the plants into a drier atmosphere and being more sparing with the watering can, should prevent the problem happening again.

If you have a gardening problem, write to Gardenlife, Daily Record, One Central Quay, Glasgow G3 8DA.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Oct 7, 2000
Words:1794
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