Of all the months of the gardening year, November ranks as one of my least favourite. The clocks having gone back, any gardening will now take place at the weekend, when it will probably rain anyway. I have planted all my bulbs except tulips, it is still a little too early to move deciduous trees and shrubs and apart from pruning and raking leaves, there are very few jobs to do that that can’t wait until spring.
As my enthusiasm for actual gardening wanes I regard this as a great time of year to plan for next season, so I shall devote the next three months to choosing my top ten trees, shrubs and perennials from 31 years of gardening in Somerset.
Top 10 trees
The perfect garden tree has more than one good quality to earn its place in the garden. The best are fairly small, with flowers, autumn colour, a dainty habit and small leaves that cast light shade, perfect for sitting under on hot summer days as well as not dropping huge leaves to rake up in autumn.
- Malus Evereste. This crab apple has it all – pink buds that open to white flowers, small leaves that turn yellow in autumn, while the small orange fruit stay on the tree till nearly Christmas. They make a lovely pink apple jelly. The one I planted in Ilminster 25 years ago is looking very handsome, and still under 3.5 metres tall.
- Sorbus aucuparia. The rowan is native to Britain, and as happy in the sunny south as in Scotland. Unfussy as to soil or climate, it has a habit of growing taller than wide, has a pinnate leaf, white spring blossom, red berries and excellent autumn colour. The leaves shatter into their component parts, curl up and make very little mess. You can make jelly from the fruit and the birds like them too. There are varieties with yellow, pink or white berries, which are less attractive to the birds, so persist for longer. Some varieties are grafted onto native root stock, which then suckers – you might as well stick to plain S. aucuparia and allow it to grow naturally multi-stemmed.
- Amelanchier lamarkii. The Snowy Mespilus is the common name which is uncommonly used. The white spring blossom and dainty habit looks good in town or country, and it turns a lovely tan orange in autumn and when the leaves fall, the are small enough not to be a nuisance.
- Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’. This is one of the toughest of the Japanese maples, and faster growing than many. It is a better choice for a purple leaved tree than the purple sycamore or early purple cherry, both of which are gloomy in late summer. It does not require acid soil, as many people believe.
- Betula pendula. The Silver Birch is another British native, its only fault the shedding of catkins and old twigs every spring. The leaves are smaller than the more popular white barked stiffly branched ‘Betula Jaquemontii’.Graceful dangling branches sway in the lightest breeze and remain transparent against the sky even when mature. The new lime green leaves mature mid green and turn yellow in autumn.
- Acer griseum. The paperbark maple has a quiet character and neat form, but once seen, never forgotten. The shaggy peeling cinnamon bark is its main feature, so it is often offered as a multi-stemmed specimen. The small lobed leaves turn a rich orange in autumn. It is slow growing, so a small specimen will set you back £60 or more, and a large one over £1000, but it will not outgrow its space in your lifetime.
- Liquidambar styraciflua. The Sweet Gum is the first choice for a large country garden, where a native-looking tree might be desirable where there is enough room – it will get as big as a beech tree one day and I see many town specimens uncomfortably outgrowing their space. Growing taller than wide, its main claim to fame is spectacular autumn colour. It is best to buy a named clone like Lane Roberts for the best display; some unnamed trees refuse to colour up at all.
- Ginkgo biloba. The Maidenhair Tree from China has a most unusual leaf of distinctive prehistoric shape, its leaves found in fossils 270 million years old. Another small leaved but large tree, again usually taller than wide, the autumn colour is the most amazing gold, dropping in a pool under the tree all at once in early November. There is a splendid specimen in Yeovil, on Hendford Hill.
- Apple ‘Scrumptious’ Somerset being the best apple county in the UK (sorry, Kent and Hereford, we just are), I simply have to have one on my Top 10 list. As few of us have room for an orchard of apples all compatibly pollinating each other, I will have Scrumptious. It lives up to its name and is one of the few that is self-fertile. Like most early apples it does not store well – eat while nice and crisp straight from the tree.
- Crataegus laevigata flore pleno. I prefer the double pink hawthorn to the more commonly grown Paul’s Scarlet, and the double white is a seldom seen beauty. Hawthorns are immensely tough, agreeably small leaved, and if they get too big for their position, do not resent being totally decapitated to grow a completely new crown in three years.