By the middle of November it would not be unreasonable to expect gardens to be looking well past their best. There are some gardens created expressly for winter interest, but most gardeners take a pragmatic approach: the winter months are a time for planning and plotting the coming season, the weather is usually inimical to long periods of garden maintenance or to much time spent admiring the garden.
However, the autumn in Oxford this year has been extremely mild so far, with warm sunshine in abundance and relatively little in the way of wet or windy weather. Bonfire Night on November 5th is often a cold, wet trial - not so this year. One or two gusty days in the last month or two have been all that central England has had in the way of seasonal gales, and there are still a number of well-coloured leaves on deciduous trees waiting to fall.
The warm weather has allowed birds to continue feeding, so the winter berries have not yet been decimated and the plentiful sunshine permits the colours to shine out. There are some remarkable colour combinations out there, as some plants survive a bit longer to appear with others that have begun to turn. Tree leaves will be heading towards uniform brown by now, but the foliage of many perennials has only just begun to adopt the yellow-green cast that precedes the plants' dormancy.
Combine these with the very last flowers - some last-gasp Rudbeckias, miniature red pom-poms of the Ricinus and a few dahlias in deep red or pastel orange and there is the possibility of something really eye-catching in the garden at this least likely season.
I think the trick to getting the most out of this season is to treat every chance combination as a bonus - relish the different shades of brown and enjoy the quietness of the fading year whilst welcoming any other colour that happens by. In the absence of large areas of bright colour it is the small, intense incidents of berry or solitary surviving flower that draw the eye. We also become more relaxed and less demanding - given the opportunity to experience any colour at all we ignore clashes of colour that would earn a disapproving 'tut' in high summer whilst also welcoming subtleties that might seem insufficiently dramatic at other times.
Even so, it can be seen from these photographs taken this week that there are still some great combinations to be enjoyed out there while the weather holds, with some cast-iron perennials such as Verbena bonariensis coping well with current conditions. The weather will inevitably worsen, of course, but it will be worth getting into gardens while the weather holds over the next few days - enjoy the show while it lasts!
Images and text copyright Paul Ridley Design