Discover the plants that grow old gracefully


As autumn arrives, choose plants that fade with elegance and architecture. Val Bourne suggests some cultivars to go for

October is a warm month, full of seasonal riches. There’s still heat in the afternoon sunshine, but the colour palette has definitely begun to drift; there are plenty of browns, khakis and beiges among the late-flowering jewels.
As days get shorter, the sun sinks a little lower, backlighting plants and revealing textures. This is when sun-bleached blonde grasses come to the fore. Stipa gigantea has changed from a golden summer fountain to a harvest-brown veil and it’s getting a little more translucent and golden every day. Miscanthus, molinia and cortaderia also start to shine now, so plant them where they can bask in the low-angled afternoon sun.
Foliage is beginning to blush warm tones of red and pink and plenty of shrubs still cling to their leaves. The smoke bush, Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’, has leaves that look like wine-red lollipops that develop shocking-pink edges as night-time temperatures dip. Cornus and euonymus provide a flash of decadent lipstick-pink and plum, while witch hazels and Japanese maples offer an opulent glow of marmalade gold. Now’s the time to capitalise on this natural bounty, teaming nodding blonde grasses with blushing foliage and architectural seedheads. Fading plants never looked so beautiful.
Taller grasses begin to fade to shades of honey, parchment and mink, adding movement as they shimmy and shake. The most useful is Miscanthus sinensis, whose cultivars vary widely in terms of flowering times, depending on how warm your garden is. For colder parts of the country, towering ‘Silberfeder’ (silver feather) has lots of upright parchment plumes that fade to silver-white. Slightly shorter ‘Ferner Osten’ (Far East) produces wine-red plumes that mature to mink-brown. The plumed heads persist through winter, but make sure you cut them back in February because they spurt into growth early on. 
Upright Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ gives a vertical whoosh. Piet Oudolf uses it to create a trembling backbone in his prairie gardens, but a lone clump can also work well. In contrast, Calamagrostis brachytricha produces low mounds of foliage and very fluffy heads that emerge mauve-pink in late August, picking up the colour of asters really well, before maturing to silver-white.
Taller molinias can reach 1.5m (5ft). They need less space than miscanthus and tend to be airier, although their heads disintegrate by midwinter. Molinia caerulea ‘Karl Foerster’ colours up to gold by October and, despite its height, can be grown at the front of a border because it’s so gauzy. ‘Transparent’ is even finer and its beaded heads darken as autumn days shorten. It’s very good with tall yellow daisies.
Seedheads also come into their own and the papery, domed heads of hydrangeas die beautifully. Easy to grow Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ was found in Ohio so it’s used to cold winters and dry summers. Its large ivory-white flowerheads, which turn to shades of green, can get blown about by wind. ‘Strong Annabelle’ has more robust stems and bigger flowers; there’s also a new ‘Pink Annabelle’. Late-summer- flowering H. paniculata ‘Limelight’ and lacier white ‘Kyushu’ both fade into winter gracefully too; paniculatas generally tolerate woodland shade.
Lots of stiff-stemmed perennials can be left to endure in winter. Veronicastrums have slender tapers above whorled foliage and, as the flowers wane, the green bobbly heads begin to turn pale brown. Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Erica’ is a good pink form and the reddish buds add extra drama. You’ll also get good verticals, blue flowers and dark stems from agastache ‘Blackadder’ and Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’; both fade with utmost elegance.

Miscanthus ‘Silberfeder’ Ornamental grass with tall, airy, silvery plumes. Needs full sun and a moist, well-drained soil. H2.5m (8ft) S1.5m (5ft)

Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ Large globes of dense white flowers July-Sept. Sun or part shade in any soil, even dry conditions. H and S2.5m (8ft)

Veronicastrum ‘Album’ Slender white spikes July-Aug. Sun or part shade in moist, well- drained soil. H1.2m (4ft) S45cm (18in)

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