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RHS discovers signs of autumn appearing weeks early in gardens
by RHS
September 2, 2020

Signs of autumn have begun to appear in gardens several weeks earlier than usual, following a prolonged period of mixed, extreme weather conditions, the Royal Horticultural Society has found. Telltale indicators including leaves turning and apples ready for harvest earlier than usual have been spotted at its four gardens before the end of meteorological summer.

RHS Chief Horticulturist Guy Barter explains: “This summer’s mixed bag of weather phenomena has had some surprising results in our gardens, both good and bad. The spring drought and heatwave, heavy rain in early summer and the recent prolonged scorching temperatures have made for an interesting growing season.

“We are certainly seeing some of the signs that typically suggest autumn is on the way earlier than usual, but it is still too early to say what long-term effect this might have. While some crops, like apples, seem to be ready a couple of weeks earlier than usual, leaf fall and colouring seen now follows heat and drought stress and we can still look forward to good autumn tree colour. Other crops, such as grapes for example, may need a warm, dry autumn to really flourish.”

RHS Garden Wisley in Surrey, which saw some of the highest temperatures in the UK during the August heatwave, has found its collection of autumn-flowering bulbs are flourishing.

Cyclamen hederifolium and Amaryllis belladonna have been spurred into flower up to a month ahead of schedule.

Curator Matthew Pottage explains: “Our river of cyclamen through the Pinetum certainly enjoyed the heat – they need a period of dry, hot weather followed by a drop in temperature and rain to trigger their blooms. They’re now in full flower and will provide a beautiful display for weeks.”

RHS Garden Hyde Hall, which saw days of scorching temperatures in August followed by torrential rain causing flash flooding nearby, has seen a Virginia creeper growing in the Hilltop garden showing the first flush of its fiery autumnal colour.

Elsewhere, silver birch trees have begun to shed leaves.

At RHS Garden Rosemoor, early heat in spring gave its two orchards a head start to the growing season and the team is now ready to harvest some early varieties a couple of weeks ahead of schedule. Peter Adams, Team Leader for Edibles at Rosemoor, adds: “We seem to be in for a good harvest this year – not the bumper crop of 2018 but still a strong, healthy one given the extreme weather we’ve had!” Garden Manager Helen Round says the Rosemoor team is hoping for an Indian summer to lengthen the season too: “We’re hoping for an extended summer season at Rosemoor, as we have lots of late-season herbaceous perennials flowering now and ornamental grasses coming into their own, with seed heads and earthy foliage colours.

“Autumn favourites like pumpkins and squashes and coloured foliage kales are flourishing in our productive garden, too. The garden takes on a different atmosphere as we head into autumn, with cooler mornings, heavy dews and change in light levels bringing a feeling of peace and mellowness.”

In North Yorkshire at RHS Garden Harlow Carr, the autumnal colours of seasonal favourites such as Persian ironwood trees and a crimson glory vine are beginning to appear. A Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, which usually flowers in November, has also begun to bloom more than two months ahead of schedule thanks to the impact of the weather.

Garden Manager Ali Goding explains that the apparent early arrival of autumn may be down to the recent heatwave: “A few plants have turned but it can be hard to put it down to an early autumn: some plants have been very stressed this year with the fluctuating temperatures and erratic weather.”

Elsewhere in the garden, Kitchen Garden horticulturist Joe Lofthouse says the apples are beginning to drop around a fortnight sooner than expected. However, he says some things are having a longer season thanks to the heat: “Globe artichokes are flowering again which is unusual for this time of the year. Normally flowering stops around mid-July at the latest.”

Guy Barter adds: “Apples approaching maturity are at a grave risk of being shaken off the boughs in the strong winds we have had this week, but later ones should be alright. Windfalls are a great excuse for apple pie, apple cake, apple chutney, apple and blackberry puree, juicing and so on! “Quality is important, however, and happily the dry weather in the south and east has held back fungus diseases that can play havoc with garden apple crops. Keep a close eye on apple trees and pick any that are colouring and part easily from the tree – the outer ones ripen will before the inner ones.

“The summer heat will have ripened the wood of fruit trees, helping the prospects of the 2021 crop, but some exposed apples to the sun will have been scalded by the heat during hot periods.”

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