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Favorite Garden Books: The Garden in Autumn

November 2, 2015

Garden in Autumn

For several years, based on the recommendations of other garden bloggers, I have been wanting to read some of the garden writing of Allen Lacy. Many of his books are out of print and a bit difficult to find. But when I discovered in September that I could borrow a copy of The Garden in Autumn (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990) from the public library, the timing was perfect.

Lacy calls autumn “the neglected season” in the garden and argues that this is a legacy of the English gardening tradition. But, he notes, autumn is a very different season in the United States than it is in England. “In September of 1988,” he writes, “I was suddenly struck by the accumulated evidence in my own [New Jersey] garden that autumn could be the very best of seasons.” (p. 2)

After an introduction extolling the glories of gardening in autumn, Allen Lacy gets to the heart of his book, 6 chapters each focused on a category of autumn garden plants: Lingering Perennials, Perennials Specific unto the Season, Bulbs of Autumn, Grasses of Autumn, Annuals in the Autumn Garden, and Some Woody Plants of Autumn. These chapters introduced me to plants I wasn’t familiar with and to ideas about how to extend the season in my own garden.

This list of chapters might suggest that The Garden in Autumn is primarily an encyclopedia of plants for the autumn garden, but it is much more than that. The book  is lavishly illustrated with full-color photographs of autumn gardens, featuring not only individual plants but also gorgeous plant combinations; and these photographs are mostly of Lacy’s own garden or of gardens he has visited. That last is an important detail, because this is a deeply personal book. Allen Lacy describes his vision for the book this way:

It was not my intent to be encyclopedic, nor do I claim that this book is the final word on gardens in autumn. It is written instead out of my own experience to date, buttressed by the experiences of good friends. The great majority of plants that are discussed I have either grown or seen and admired in gardens other than my own. (p. 4)

The personal nature of Lacy’s observations are highlighted by the fact that this book is written in the first person and is laced with anecdotes about his personal experience with various plants. The Garden in Autumn is thus as much garden essay as plant guide. To give you the flavor of this combination, let me quote this discussion of Coreopsis rosea (from the “Lingering Perennials” chapter):

As the species name indicates, it bears soft pink flowers. They are tiny, about half the size of a dime. Bloom is nonstop from summer into fall. It grows only twelve inches high, and its spreading, stoloniferous habit makes it a good ground cover for either full sun or light shade…. The only source I know for this seldom-grown but promising northeastern perennial is Canyon Creek Nursery, although some wholesale nurseries are beginning to take an interest in propagating it on a large scale. I hear rumors of a white form. I also harbor the suspicion, based on the stoloniferous habit of C. rosea and its equal success in sun or shade (plus a few rumblings from friends with whom I exchange tales of greedy plants that exceed in their takeover ambitions anything seen on Wall Street), that this coreopsis needs to be watched closely and vetted if it starts wanting Lebensraum. (The fears of “creeping Communism” with which we alarmed ourselves for some decades after World War II because of galloping Nazism, and our rhetoric about eternal vigilance, may finally prove unfounded. But any garden is liable to harbor creeping Communists, Trojan Horses, or what you will.) (pp. 41-2)

I found The Garden in Autumn both enjoyable and inspiring. It helped me to expand my garden horizons. Because Lacy gardens in a warmer climate than I do, I can’t grow all the plants that he recommends. But because, like me, he gardens in sandy soil, his book has encouraged me to try some plants that I previously thought needed more moisture than I can provide. As I read through The Garden in Autumn, I kept stopping to make notes – reminding myself that I wanted to add some fall-blooming bulbs and corms to the Serenity Garden, and incorporating some ornamental grasses into the beginnings of a design for the side slope garden that I plan to add next year.

While the value of The Garden in Autumn is enduring, there are ways that this 25-year-old volume is dated. Lacy’s advice about specific cultivars and plant sources are of less use today than is his more general discussion of plant genera for the autumn garden. I was taken aback by his glowing recommendations of some plants (e.g., Nandina domestica) now identified as invasive in the mid-Atlantic region where he gardens.  I also noticed some surprising absences. When I began trying to extend the blooming season in my own perennial garden, I turned first to late-blooming daylily cultivars like ‘Autumn Minaret,’ ‘Final Touch,’ and ‘Sandra Elizabeth.’ But there is no mention of the genus Hemerocallis in Allen Lacy’s discussion of “lingering perennials.” This may be because he is not a fan of daylilies; more likely it is because the wide selection of very late blooming and reblooming cultivars that have been developed to extend the daylily season into September and October were not widely available in 1990.

Despite these limitations, I will turn to this book again and again as I design my garden for longer bloom and autumn interest. If, like me, you are trying to extend the season of bloom and beauty in your garden, I don’t think you can do better than Allen Lacy’s The Garden in Autumn for both inspiration and advice.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. debsgarden permalink
    November 2, 2015 10:13 pm

    I agree that autumn can be the very best season in my garden, and I am fortunate that this season can be an extended one in my mild climate. I love reading old garden books. I have a bookcase full of them. They are like old friends. I remember when I was just starting to garden and many of those books were fresh and new.

    • November 9, 2015 9:27 pm

      Deb, I am lucky in having access to a wonderful collection of old garden books at the Portland (ME) Public Library. This was just one of them.

  2. November 3, 2015 10:10 am

    Jean, what a delight to read about a book that is entirely new to me, on a subject I need to pay attention to. We’ve had an extended autumn this year — and probably will continue to, as warmer temperatures move farther north. So I could stretch the flowering season if I choose to rather than cut everything down on the old schedule. Thanks for drawing attention to the book and the topic.

    • November 9, 2015 9:28 pm

      Pat, I am amazed that I still have some asters and phlox in bloom in the 2nd week of November! Gives me reason to pay more attention to this season, too. I think you would enjoy the book.

  3. November 3, 2015 7:19 pm

    Old garden books can be very useful, even when some of the references have become outdated. I still regularly refer to a 1996 book written by the Los Angeles Times’ former garden editor for advice. The Lacy book sounds like a delight to read, although I suspect it would be of limited use here in SoCal, where there is no end to the garden season. (I’m not bragging – the lack of a respectable rest period can be exhausting for the gardener, if not the garden.)

    • November 9, 2015 9:29 pm

      Kris, He is definitely writing for a northeast/midwest US audience with a “traditional” 4-season climate.

  4. November 4, 2015 3:15 am

    I have this book, I came across it a few years ago in a second hand book shop. ) lo e it because there are so few books written about this neglected season.

    • November 9, 2015 9:31 pm

      Chloris, Did you find this book useful in thinking about your UK garden? I ask because he begins this book by contrasting autumn in much of the US (especially the northeast) with autumn in the UK.

  5. November 4, 2015 12:44 pm

    So glad you enjoyed this book! Allan Lacey is one of my favorite garden writers, he reminds me somewhat of E.B. White.

    • November 9, 2015 9:32 pm

      Jason, You were one of the people who made me feel I should read Allen Lacy, so I owe you a debt of gratitude for the pleasure and knowledge I gained from this book.

  6. November 10, 2015 4:46 pm

    Hello Lynn, Autumn can be a rather busy time with bulb planting, lifting and diving perennials, pruning, tying-in etc and winter preparation. Autumn is certainly not “neglected” by us, even in flowering as hardy annuals keep going and late-flowering plants are at their best. The border I am making for next year may be at its best in Autumn with the plants I’m hoping to put in.

    • November 10, 2015 4:46 pm

      Oh dear, I meant Jean, not Lynn – apologies, it’s been a rather long day for me!

      • November 11, 2015 10:54 pm

        Sunil, The fact that you’ve been so busy reinforces your point that autumn is hardly a neglected time in English gardens. 😉

  7. November 17, 2015 7:43 pm

    Well this looks like a great book and I agree autumn is a wonderful season often neglected….I will have to look for this book.

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