The Joys of ‘Autumn’

17 November 2016



Autumn: An anthology for the changing seasons’ edited by Melissa Harrison. This is third of a four-part seasonal series.


  • Firstly, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about Autumn, Melissa…We will be mostly focusing on the third volume of the quartet, but before that, can you tell a little about how this series began? Did you initially envision a quartet of seasonal anthologies, or did you start off wanting to cover one particular season?

Elliott & Thompson had already come up with the concept of the series, and in fact had begun the initial research for Spring . They were looking for a series editor, someone to help steer the tone and content of the books, and who could help with the commissioning process. When they got in touch I was interested straight away, but a little worried aabout whether I’d be able to do as good a job as I knew the series deserved, what with having a day job and also writing a new novel in my time off. But I loved the idea of the books, and I was already buzzing with ideas for writers and extracts we could include, so I said yes. Fortunately, the team at E&T were so good that I never felt overwhelmed by the commissioning or editing process.

  • Can you tell me a little about The Wildlife Trust, and how it is involved?

E&T had previously published an anthology in support of The Wildlife Trusts, called Nature Tales: Encounters with Britain’s Wildlife, so the relationship was already there. I’m a member of the London Wildlife Trust and have links to other Trusts, too, so I was very keen to support their work, which is of vital importance across the UK.

  • How did you select the pieces you included?

Our researcher, Bronagh Woods, spent a lot of time in the British Library, looking for extracts from classic works of literature and nature writing. I had my own list of older and more contemporary works I wanted to see represented, and established nature writers I wanted to commission. Meanwhile, The Wildlife Trusts put out a call for submissions among their members, and both E&T and I spent time looking for nature bloggers and conservationists who might be persuaded to contribute. Throughout the process, we kept an eye on the balance of male and female writers, the geographical spread of the pieces, and the range of subjects covered; we also looked for pieces by writers of colour, who are underrepresented in writing about nature.

  • Did you encounter any particular challenges along the way?

There were some extracts we weren’t able to include, either due to space constraints or because of copyrights issues, which was a shame – but anthologies can never be exhaustive. And the editing process was necessarily different with new and less experienced contributors than with established writers, who are used to being subbed. But overall, the process was very smooth – and really enjoyable.

  • Any future projects?

I’m working on my third novel at the moment, which is taking up most of my time. And I have another couple of ideas I want to get cracking on once it’s done…watch this space!



20151001_163258In her introduction Ms. Harrison describes her love of autumn…She notes that although this time of year has qualities sometimes associated with dying (or at least dormancy), we can definitely discern in it the vital interconnectedness of decay with new life. Although plant growth slows or stops as fall progresses, it is also harvest time with its bounty of food for wildlife and people. At the same time it’s a key season for saprophytes: fungi, moulds and relations, the recyclers of the world…A few writers take us along as they forage for fungi…Kate Blincoe writes, ‘It was macabre from a distance; a pure white, human-sized skull glowing out from the darkness of the woodland glade…It was a giant puffball mushroom, the size of a football.’


Through a variety of accounts, we experience the seasonal bounty ready to nourish humans and wildlife; sloes, blackberries, elderberries and more. In a piece from The Farmer’s Year: A Calendar of English Husbandry (1933), we are transported to apple harvesting in Kent where one of the party has picked ‘this seventy year’, and horse-drawn wagons are filled with bushel baskets. More recently, Janet Willoner brings the reader along with her into an old Yorkshire orchard, picking apples with fanciful names like Keswick Codlin, Blenheim Orange and Peasgood Nonesuch, and then through the fragrant (and sticky) steps of making cider.

For bird watchers,  fall migrations are full of anticipation and activity, both in the skies and on the ground. Dr. Rob Lambert describes frenetic annual pilgrimage of birders to the Scilly Isles or Shetland, where birders can witness mass migrations and ‘make or break reputations.’ Chris Murphy shares a similar autumn ritual at St. John’s Point, where he observes the return of hundreds of seabirds, including gannets, kittiwakes, razorbills and occasionally Sabine’s gull or storm petrels.


Each piece in this collection conveys  its author’s unique voice, which combine to create an ode to autumn. We are drawn into each writer’s experience of the UK landscape at this particular, often poignant season… Most are contemporary pieces, but there are a few works (usually short) from the 19th and 20th centuries. Several are by Thomas Furley Foster, from The Pocket Encyclopedia of Natural Phenomena, published in 1827. Here’s a portion of one:

‘Fieldfares, when they arrive early and in great abundance in autumn, foreshew a hard winter, which has probably set in, in the regions from which they have come. They usually come in November.’

It is comforting somehow to read observations of nature from previous times, as they punctuate a cycle of appreciation for similar plants, birds, wildlife and landscapes that we continue to experience today…

Some of the entries from current writers are particularly lyrical. Ginny Battson gathers strands from natural history and ancient Greek philosophy to weave a poetic tapestry on the ever-changing connectedness of the natural world:

‘A leaf is not a leaf forever. It is in a state of flux between leaf and particulate, living and dead. A leaf that falls in the stream is the beginning of a chain. Spin, yaw, pitch and submerge, it’s hurrying downstream in a thrum of fluvial energy and I lose sight of it.’

Another current contributor, Jo Cartmell, eloquently shares her experiences of wildlife at her local wetland, Barton Fields, in Oxfordshire, where her patience is rewarded with sightings of water voles and Tawny owls. She writes:

‘I love this season of gradual withdrawal. It is not only a visible withdrawal by nature, but a subtle inner withdrawal, too; a slow imperceptible retreat into ourselves…A chance to recharge the soul after a spring and summer of almost constant activity.’

Louise Baker creates a multi-faceted tour of the sensory pleasure of the season, from the plethora of berries, the perfume of wet leaves, the crunch of leaves underfoot to the soft sounds of wildlife in the growing stillness.


The format of this volume offers several benefits, apart from the pleasure of reading each piece. It provides an opportunity to discover new writers, (there is an index with short bios of each contributor), and to follow up by reading more of their work elsewhere. It also presents a diversity of styles and voices, whilst remaining under the umbrella of the theme… yet within that framework are a delightful range of perspectives and experiences.

I thoroughly enjoyed this entire book. This volume or the entire set would be a great gift for anyone, especially a nature-lover, or anyone who appreciates good writing. The length of individual pieces makes it perfect for busy people…easy to dip in and out of, yet satisfying to delve into for a satisfying bout of seasonal immersion.

Autumn: an anthology for the changing seasons, edited by Melissa Harrison, is published by The Wildlife Trusts and Elliot and Thompson.

Postscript: A boxed set of the entire series: Seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter (boxed set of four paperbacks) is now available at the usual outlets and online at:

Very highly recommended…




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Blooms to Travel by…

This gallery contains 3 photos.

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Noticed on a later winter’s day…


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Howard Wills – AGCBC – Sempervivum Talk

Speaker Review – Excerpted from the Winter Issue AGCBC Bulletin. For more info see Alpine Garden Club of BC.
Jo Turner
Howard Wills – AGCBC – December 9th, 2015
Report by Jo Turner, photos by Howard Wills

Attendees of the December meeting had the distinct pleasure of hearing UK plantsman Howard Wills talk on Semperivums and Related Plants. Mr. Wills is a long-time expert grower of Sempervivums and Jovibarba. Howard runs Fernwood Nursery, in Peters Marland, near Torrington, Dorset, UK. He holds the NCCPG collections of Sempervivum, Jovibarba and has also held the Phormium collection until not long ago.


The genus Jovibarba is closely related to Sempervivum, and, as Howard noted, some experts say they are too similar to warrant a separate genus designation. The main differences are displayed in the floral structures. While the flowers of Sempervivumsare open, Jovibarba flowers are cupped, and have fewer petals, joined at the base. Unlike Semperivum flowers, which are most commonly found in shades of red, pink or purple (some species are yellow or white as well), often with a dark stripe in the center, Jovibarba flowers are usually yellow, though they can range from almost white to a deeper yellow shade.

Howard has participated in many of Britain’s most prestigious garden shows, and won Gold medals at Chelsea in 2005, 2006 and 2010. Howard, with his wife, Sally, wrote a book, ‘An Introduction to Sempervivum and Jovibarba: Species and Cultivars’, which he had a few copies of for purchase. It is chock full of information about all aspects of growing and displaying these plants. I would highly recommend it.

Mr. Wills’ enthusiasm for the genus he has specialized in for many years is infectious. Throughout his talk, his passion for all aspects of this genus shined. Over the course of the evening he shared tips on their cultivation and propagation, a variety of cultivars, history, including medicinal uses, how they relate to Fibonacci series, and how to display them to best advantage, along with a mass of stellar photos illustrating his points.


Sempervivums (common name houseleeks), are members of the Crassulaceae family, and have been grown in the UK for centuries, although (strangely), there are no species native to Great Britain. Native to higher elevations, in Morocco and Central Europe, across the Balkans, Caucasus and Iran, they are found nowhere else in the world. Howard stressed that although Sempervivums have succulent leaves similar to many more similar genuses, they are much hardier than most. Subsequently they are not nearly as tender as Echiverias, Agaves, Aeoniums and other succulent plants. He noted that Sempervivums are actually very tough and relatively easy to grow, with their only essential requirements being sun and good drainage. Snow and cold seem to not present any lasting problems either. Regarding possible predators, Howard displayed his love of wildlife when he mentioned that should blackbirds occasionally dig up his plants (often looking for vine weevils), he will check the roots, remove any larvae he finds, replant and leave the larvae nearby for a tasty meal for the birds.

Sempervivums reproduce mainly by producing offsets, the proverbial ‘chicks’ when we see a clump of hens and chicks. He noted that to encourage even more offshoots you may remove the monocarpic flowers, which usually appear in the second or third year of a plant’s life. A cautionary tip he passed along is that, as Sempervivums do die after flowering (being monocots), one might not want to purchase one in flower, although, with the presence of offsets on many plants, only the actual flowering portion would be affected. Regarding the leafy offshoots, a new set of babies should appear each year, on the periphery of the original plant. He illustrated with a photo how you can easily distinguish each year’s new stolons, which are easily removed and potted up. If new plants are desired, late summer is the best time to make cuttings. Of course one can also just let the clumps get bigger and bigger, filling a pot or area in aplanting, which happens quite quickly. Howard stressed that growing from seed is also very easily done, although cultivars won’t come true, and so aren’t usually propagated that way.

Having entered Sempervivums in many garden shows over the years, Howard really knows how best to arrange a planting for maximum interest. He shared his enthusiasm for creating patterns with red/green rosettes, geometric arrangements, tighter/looser textures, and a variety of designs with us, in a series of stellar photos. He also told us about his fascination with the mathematical repetitions created by the spirals and rosettes of these genera, and made reference to their affinity with Fibonacci spirals. The Fibonacci spiral is described as the ‘Golden Mean’ and describes a pattern made when certain numbers are repeated in sequence. Here is a link showing some Fibonacci spirals in nature: The Fibonacci sequence is where each number is the sum of the previous two numbers.


The Fibonacci spiral: an approximation of the golden spiral created by drawing circular arcs connecting the opposite corners of squares in the Fibonacci tiling;[3] this one uses squares of sizes 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and 34. All in all, a fascinating and highly informative presentation by a man whose enthusiasm for Sempervivums is definitely contagious…

‘An Introduction to Sempervivum and Jovibarba: Species and Cultivars’ by Howard and Sally Wills. Published 2004. IBBN 0-9547533-0-5.


Website: Email:

The nursery and garden are open by appointment. Fernwood offers a full mail-order service.

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Onward to a new year…


It’s a coldish (2C) clear, sunny day in Vancouver. We had an ever so slight dusting of snow overnight. Snow around here is a very ephemeral phenomenon, usually only around for few days at most..It does however, totally alter the landscape, however briefly, creating silhouettes on roofs and branches,  painting the world with a frosty brush. The ground is hard, unyielding, and in the garden, bronzed leaves display their ragged silver fringes…

Image result for echinacea flower with bee

I jumped, (well maybe tiptoed), into the world of blogging last autumn, and somehow the landscape in my world shifted as well… The observations, interactivity, and general thoughtfulness and humanity of those blogs I encountered, (and followed) encouraged me to aspire to join in…The community on Twitter, some who blog, are an amazing and wondrous bunch who mean alot to me. A few more experienced bloggers kindly offered very useful advice (you know who you are), and I will always be grateful. There are a few things I plan to write about this year in particular.


The news every day is full of how nature is being attacked, seemingly on all fronts, from bees threatened by hive collapse and neo-nicotinioids, to oceans filling with plastic, which in turn is devoured by marine animals/fish, then becoming present in the flesh of, guess what, the tasty morsel on your plate. Meanwhile governments around the world seem to have blinders on when it comes to understanding the potentially devastating consequences of processes like fracking. In British Columbia, Canada where I live, our government’s enthusiasm for LNG is only surpassed by the folly of issuing a permit to allow the headwaters (source of the town’s water supply) above  Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island be used as a toxic waste dump. How is this even possible??? But enough gloom…


Every day I encounter examples of individuals and groups who are deeply commited to upholding and protecting the natural world. Some are gardeners, or designers, or plant propagators, others work to save species or habitat. Still others study and educate communities about beneficial insects and pollinators. Some work with young people to introduce them to the natural world. Their approaches are quite diverse, yet there is a commmon link – the idea that mankind is not the be all/end all of this planet. These ongoing efforts provide a much-needed sense of hope that people can make a positive contribution, within communities, in schools, in gardens, conservation projects, and in countless other initiatives. I hope to highlight some of these projects, books, and people this year.


I also plan to write about some public gardens,  introduce some new (and old, but stellar) garden books,  and share some horticulturally related events and lectures with my readers. Plus, perhaps a bit of serendipity, just to mix it up a bit.


And so, onward to a new year…. May it bring resilence, a renewed sense of wonder, and the joy to be found both in making and experiencing gardens, (along with the achy muscles), and also by connecting with the wild mysteries of this natural world we call home.



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An Evening with Piet Oudolf, Vancouver, BC. Nov. 16th, 2015


On Monday evening (Nov.16th) over a thousand lucky Vancouverites had the rare pleasure of attending a talk by one of the world’s most influential garden designers, Piet Oudolf, for this year’s Paul Sangha Lecture. Mr. Oudolf is also the author of several books, with his most recent, ‘Hummelo’ published this year.  Part of  SALA’s (School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture) Fall 2015 Lecture Series,  with additional assistance from the Consulate-General of the Netherlands in Vancouver, around 850 of Vancouver’s gardening and design community attended. The original venue was changed when a groundswell of interest made it obvious a larger one was needed to accomodate the numbers hoping to attend.


After a warm welcome and  introduction by Ron Kellett, Director of SALA and Assistant-Professor Kees Lokman, Mr. Oudolf began his talk… He looks like an outdoorsman, and has a relaxed, sure way of speaking that puts people at ease. He began by telling the story of how his home garden, (and nursery) called Hummelo, in the Netherlands, evolved. Piet and his wife Anja bought a 3 acre piece of land in the early 1980’s, with a couple of older buildings on it. They decided to begin a nursery, including many borders to show how the plants grew, and which, he reminded us, took several years to become the well known garden it is today. The nursery would specialize in perennials that until then had not been frequently used in gardens, such as ornamental grasses, North American prairie species, tall plants that hold their shape into the winter, and many Umbellifers, such as Angelica gigas, as well as Astrantias, Eryngiums, Helianthus. etc.

Throughout Oudolf’s presentation he noted that he had made some mistakes, wasn’t always sure of how to proceed, and credited the role of circumstances, sometimes difficult ones, in effecting unexpected, but positive outcomes. Unspoken was his deep knowledge of perennials and how to grow them, his great eye for plant combinations, unique philosophy of design, and decades of dedication and work.

In these early days of the nursery Piet and his wife Anja were very busy, running their fledgling nursery, raising their family, and repairing their old house, with not a lot of money. As he mentioned, many of the plants they grew eventually were used in his designs, but ‘Nobody would hire me for design at that time’….


Around 1990 a publisher approached Oudolf about doing a book, since the nursery by then had a very good reputation for unusual, high quality plants, including several that they discovered or bred, such as Salvia ‘Purple Rain’, Echinacea ‘Fatal Attraction’, Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo’ and others. Piet enlisted a good friend and fellow plantsman, Henk Gerritsen, to undertake the project with him, titled ‘Dream Plants for the Natural Garden’.  I bought a copy several years ago, and agree with Noel Kingbury, who in his forward to the book writes, ‘Above all, a love of the subject matter shines through. The book deserves to become a classic of garden literature, as well as one of those reference books that gets the greatest accolade of the genre – that of becoming dog-eared and grubby.’

Gerritsen and Oudolf favoured plants, including ornamental grasses, that were never or seldom chosen in gardens until then – large, wildish perennials that looked good even as they decayed, and created a naturalistic atmosphere, rather than being merely botanical ‘decoration’. This change in perspective has thoroughly permeated how gardens are viewed, with it now being acceptable to leave seedheads and stalks standing through the winter, to the benefit of birds and other wildlife.


In the nineteen-eighties, Oudolf observed, there was a minor explosion of small new nurseries in Europe and the UK. Plantspeople and nursery-owners shared plants, techniques, seeds, and comraderie. There was lots of visiting back and forth… Hummelo and other nurseries on the continent and in the UK held regular Open Days, where not only botanical knowledge but friendships grew. This is obvious in Oudolf’s photos from the time with nursery owners and plant breeders Ernst Pagels and Beth Chatto, designers, writers and plantsmen Dan Pearson, (writing for the Telegraph), Keith Wiley, Roy Lancaster, Ray Diblik, Rick Darke and others.  He mentioned that around that time he made it a practice to seek out unusual perennials and trial them. Oudolf also had a close connection with Great Dixter, Christopher Lloyd’s well-loved garden in East Sussex which continues under the guidance of Fergus Garrett.

In the mid-90’s Oudolf published another book, ‘Gardening with Grasses’, co-written with Michael King. (Yes, I have this one too…a very inspiring book  referred to again and again over the years for its cultural information and stunning photos…) As time went by, Oudolf’s plant choices and designs continued to favour naturalistic plantings that highlighted texture, habit, seasonality (especially fall colour), and plants that ‘died well’, such as Caliamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster, Miscanthus, Agastache, Monarda, Sedums and many others. Seedheads, skeletal stalks, frost-rimed leaves, transparent layers of statuesque foliage created a sense of being immersed in a garden, rather than just looking down at it. Around that time Piet and Anja planted yew hedges and pillars of silver-leaved pear at Hummelo that both contained and contrasted with these wilder perennials. Oudolf mentions that the yews were initially intended for sale, but ‘No one bought them, so we used them in the garden’. Yet another example of the serendipity that Oudolf said has been a factor in many aspects of his work.


Scrampston Hall, UK.

Oudolf encouraged us to really look at plants, especially perennials, in all seasons. He also observed that although many of his own designs are for large gardens, the plants can be equally effective and beautiful in smaller gardens. Rather than a drift of grasses, or tall plants such as Inula or Vernonia, a specimen or a few can be used to good effect.

The Oudolfs decided to close their nursery a few years ago, as Piet’s design work  occupied more and more energy. He showed us how they took out the iconic curved yew hedges at Hummelo after more than one flood, and also removed the lawn area. Several photos from the past couple of years illustrate the dynamic nature of the recent perennial plantings. As he notes, ‘Every year it’s different’. Maintenance is minimal, as the plants are densely spaced, with layers of bulbs, perennials and grasses providing interest through the seasons.

Image result for highline new york oudolf The High Line, Manhattan, NYC.

The second part of Oudolf’s talk featured several of his projects, in  chronological order, along with some of the challenges he encountered, beginnning with his first public park project in Enkoping, just outside of Stockholm, Sweden.


Highline, New York City.

Other designs Oudolf shared with us included the Olympic Garden in London, in collaboration with James Hitchmough, Nigel Dunnett, and Sara Price, the Millenium garden at Pensthorpe, UK in 2000,  Trentham, (at 1/2 hectares, his largest private garden, undertaken with Tom Stuart-Smith), Scrampston Hall, North Yorkshire, UK, The Battery and Highline in NYC, Lurie Garden, Chicago, Serpentine Gallery, London, and several others. A range of gardens in a variety of locations and contexts, all sharing the atmospheric beauty that distinguishes an Oudolf creation…Also included was the garden he designed for the Venice Biennale, the first garden especially commissioned for it.



Pensthorpe, Norfolk, UK.

A private garden Oudolf designed is located on Nantucket Island. He told us how the owners had bought a house with a few acres right on the ocean, then bought more adjacent land, ending up with a 14 acre estate to design. This project was another joint one, with Field Operations (landscape architects), and he shared some of the challenges, such as trialing prospective perennials to ensure those selected would be able to withstand the harsh coastal conditions.


Nantucket Island private garden.

The last project shown was Manhattan’s Highline. Built on an elevated rail bridge, Oudolf collaborated on this project with Field Operations (landscape architects) and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The walkway, with benches and seating areas throughout, extends for 1.45 miles, and is a major tourist draw. Oudolf told us that to avoid too much repetition they created 25 individual landscapes/habitats, such as prairie, meadow, woodland, etc. He is planning a book project with Rick Darke about the gardens and gardeners of the Highline, to be published next year.

Just as we were totally transfixed with the range of gardens Oudolf had presented, the talk came to a close. He graciously answered several questions from the audience. A couple of people wondered about maintenance in these intensively planted gardens, and Oudolf emphasized the importance of ‘good gardeners’ vs ‘bad gardeners’ to carry on the original vision of a design. When asked the difference, he replied, ‘Good gardeners know and love gardens, bad gardeners just do it to make a living’. He also offered some encouraging words to the novice designer when he said to not be afraid, to have courage to go ahead and follow your vision. He said although there may be difficulties and mistakes,  things often work out well… Certainly a colossal undertstatement in his case.

In all it was a very inspiring evening with a master of garden design…


Piet Oudolf’s books:

 With Noel Kingsbury:

  • Designing with Plants
  • Planting Design: Gardens in Time and Space
  • Landscapes in Landscapes
  • Planting: A New Perspective
  • Oudolf-Hummelo: A Journey Through a Plantsman’s Life

With Michael King:

  • Designing with Grasses

With Henk Gerritsen:

  • Dreamplants for the Natural Garden
  • Planting the Natural Garden



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