Brown is the new black for autumn plants, says TV Gardeners’ World expert
Gardeners should be looking at all shades of brown to fill their outdoor space with interest through autumn, insists BBC Gardeners’ World presenter Adam Frost.
“Brown has become the new black. Planting design is very much about asking a little bit more from our plants,” he said at the recent BBC Gardeners’ World Live show at the NEC Birmingham.
“We are all sucked in by flowers. Most of the time, if we go flower shopping, we should probably cut the flowers off and let the plants concentrate on getting their roots in the ground, but we never do that.
“Rather than just being driven by that flower, we should be asking what this plant is going to be when it goes over. What’s it going to look like going into the winter months? A lot of plants will hold structure.”
What must-have plants will brown well?
“I love herbaceous perennials like asters and eupatorium, and grasses including some of the panicums, stipas and molinias are awesome. Grasses are great, because you can play with and manipulate light, so a lot of them are at their best in late summer going into autumn.
Rudbeckias, echinaceas and heleniums will hold good structure and are great for wildlife. The deep brown flower centres will remain when the petals are spent and add structure and interest, plus, they’re fantastic for wildlife, he says.
“Echinacea is good for bees, as is eupatorium. Some asters will go brown and hold a decent structure, although frikartii might collapse.
“They will go brown, and if you underplant them with low grasses, you will get this wonderful hue of browns, bronzes, beiges and caramels right through the winter months.
“I have used Eupatorium ‘Little Joe’ in gardens, which is in contrast to the many larger eupatoriums which are quite big. I also really love Echinacea pallida, because it’s slightly different – the flowers hang rather than stand tall.
“There’s the little Aster [now called Eurybia] divaricata, which works on the edge of a woodland, and will carry on flowering from summer and keep going.”
Don’t forget grasses
“Panicums are good for creating a rich beige haze. There’s a lovely one I use called ‘Heavy Metal’. Calamagrostis is another ornamental grass that holds a decent structure. They all go brown.”
How should you combine them?
“A lot of the plants I’ve mentioned would be interplanted in a late autumn planting scheme. Use different sizes and don’t be worried about repeat planting to achieve balance.
“Look at flower shapes and how many different shapes you can add. Some of them will be daisy-like, others are umbellifer types [where many tiny flowers are held on short flower stalks, such as cow parsley, angelica and astrantia].
“The more different flower shapes you have, the better, and the same goes for leaf shapes. If you do that, your garden becomes completely different.”
How long do I leave the plant skeletons?
“I’d leave it ’til the next February. Most cutting back in my garden goes on in February or early March, depending on the winter. Cut back the grasses when new grass is appearing in spring.
“If you ask me what the garden will be in 30 years’ time, I think it will be mix of ornamentals planted within a wild landscape. We are not just gardening for beauty. We are gardening for habitat.
“When people have a big clean-up and think they are putting their garden to bed for the winter, they’ll clear away leaves, cut everything back and tidy it all up. But by doing that, they are taking away wildlife housing.
“If you leave it, you are leaving homes for insects, material to forage on and shelter. And if you leave enough old plant material, that will be used as nesting for birds the following year.”
Use the light
“As much as it’s lovely to have beautiful colour in autumn, it’s also important to understand where the best place for light is in late September and early October, and work out which places you are drawn to. Is there an area where the afternoon light will catch the back of a border, for instance?”
Don’t be afraid of the shade
“Certain plants will take a little shade. A lot of our real shade-loving plants tend to be at their best earlier on in the year, although there are shade-loving ferns, such as dryopteris (wood fern) which carry good autumn colour.
“Climbing hydrangeas can take shady spots and are good when they lose their leaves, because you can leave the brown flowers on for structure.”