May is a funny month in the garden. Summer is well and truly past, and autumn is approaching its peak in some ways, but in other ways the winter has already arrived.
Parts of the garden look a mess - the perennial beds look very ragged, with ugly foliage on peonies and hostas requiring looking after, and less than happy-looking daylilies also need a clean-up.
The vegetable garden loos decrepit as well - tomatoes have long since stopped growing, and basil and eggplants need removing. The last of the unripened tomatoes have to be gathered for placement on a sunny shelf, and the empty space where the summer vegetables once grew needs turning over and mulching.
And then there are the autumn leaves.
There seem to be polar opposite views on the question of autumn leaves. Some people seem to find them an abomination, and need to clear them daily - if not more often - while others take a much more relaxed attitude to them, perhaps even harvesting them for children to play in, or regarding them simply as a good source of roughage for the compost.
I firmly belong to the latter school, although I must say I nearly changed my mind when the large and resilient leaves from the large flowered Magnolia hybrid fell among the grass-like leaves of my Pacific Coast Iris seedlings.
We do not have a lot of autumn coloured trees and shrubs in the garden - the Head Gardener does not entirely approve of deciduousness - but there are one or two I would not be without.
We have a mature Japanese weeping maple at the edge of one of our shrubberies, and I wonder if there is a small tree which gives as many different highlights during the year. In the winter it has a slightly gaunt aspect, devoid of leaves as it is, but it also has wonderful architectural shape, the gently tumbling branch habit catching the eye. In spring our form, which is the plain green Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum Viridis’, pops out the most amazingly bright green leaves, accompanied by very delicate little flowers, like very miniature ballerinas. They need to be seen up close the be noticed, but they are stunning. Later the leaves mature to a more sombre green, which the hold nicely over summer, but as winter approaches again, they kick in with a lovely display of yellow, orange and red. Even when that is all over, and you think there is nothing more to come, there is a little encore performance from the ‘helicopter’ seeds, which are light brown against the dark brown of the old leaves.
These little beauties, which are reasonably expensive, add so much to the garden that they should be on almost everyone’s list of top shrubs. There is quite a range of them available nowadays - more than when we bought our one, when there was basically one green and one red form around, with a number of different red (or purple) varieties to choose from. ‘Crimson Princess’ has red stems and foliage right through spring and summer, but as autumn approaches it turns bronze then bright scarlet. ‘Crimson Queen’ is slightly more subdued, but has similar habits, while the old variety ‘Inabe Shidare’ has lacy purple foliage that is tougher than most, enabling it to cope with more sun than most other varieties.
If you want a totally different form try the new ‘Orangeola’. This has orange tinted leaves when it first opens, but the leaves then turn deep rusty brown before becoming green for the main growing season. But the show does not end there, as a supply of new orange leaves is produced over the summer, the new foliage looking like flowers. In the autumn all the leaves turn dark red before finishing off back again as orange. A superb weeping variety that is quickly becoming popular overseas.