Autumn tones at RHS Bridgewater

RHS Garden Bridgewater is largely designed on a variation of the prairie style, made popular by exponents such as Piet Odoulf. That means most of the interest at this time of year comes from flowing grasses, and architectural seed heads.

Flower plumes of a Miscanthus (unlabelled, but possibly M. sinensis ‘Morning Light’)
Dried heads of Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus), an ornamental plant which is closely related to globe artichoke.

Bridgewater was created just a few years ago, and only opened to the public last year, but even bearing that in mind, to me it lacks colour in the form of autumn leaves. There are rumours that an arboretum is planned, which will address this in time. In the meantime, there are at least some shrubs and trees that will give autumn colour. These topiary beech columns in the paradise garden, for instance…

The leaves of these beech (Fagus sylvatica) columns are just beginning to turn, and will look great against the silver of the Miscanthus in the foreground. A Japanese maple in the bottom left of the picture is also providing autumn colour.

The low angle of the sun at this time of year creates some interesting light effects; particularly when there’s dark cloud in the background…

The narrow, silver-backed leaves of these pollarded willows give a Mediterranean (possibly even Australian) look. They haven’t started to turn yet, but when they do, and then drop, the orange-red stems will be a decorative feature until the plants are cut back to the main trunk early next spring…

Coral bark willow (Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Britzensis’)
Another perennial that has died gracefully, leaving attractive seeds and flower heads on tall stems. I believe this may be a Eutrochium (possibly E. maculatum ‘Reisenschirm’).

There was plenty of attractive fruit, from crab apples, to rose hips, as well as all sorts of berries…

The shiny, black berries of Phytolacca americana (American pokeweed), which also has red and pink stems.

And in one corner of the Paradise garden, a Mahonia was coming into flower…

Mahonia has evergreen, spiky leaves, and gives a splash of bright colour (as well as a delicate scent) in winter.

It’s easy to think there’s no point in visiting gardens at this time of year, because the show is over. But while there may not be the sheer joy, exuberance, colour and growth of summer, a well-planned garden will still have plenty of beauty and interest. RHS Bridgewater has achieved this, and it’s something we can all bring into our own gardens.

Most of us can find room for at least one winter flowering shrub; ideally one that provides interest at other times of the year – witch hazel (Hamamelis), for instance, has good autumn colour, and Mahonia keeps its spiky, structural leaves all year round. A clump of grasses such as Miscanthus or Calamagrostis (choose your favourite varieties) will have a presence in the border and look good all year round.

Many trees and shrubs have spectacular autumn colour, and bear attractive fruits that will persist well into the winter. There is a good choice of trees with attractive bark; many of which are suitable for a small garden. Try paper bark maple (Acer griseum), snake bark maple (Acer davidii), strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), one of the Himalayan birches (such as Betula utilis ‘Moonbeam’), or Prunus serrula – an ornamental cherry with shiny, mahogany bark.

Hellebores and cyclamens will provide flowers at ground level in the winter, taking you through to the early bulbs, such as snowdrops, narcissus and crocus.

All told, there’s no excuse for a garden that is dull in autumn and winter.

The walled vegetable garden at RHS Bridgewater, watched over by the head gardener’s cottage.

Text & images © Strelitzia Garden Design 2022